Pet Care
September 15, 2023

Decoding Feline Pain: Understanding the Subtle Signs and Signals

In honor of Animal Pain Recognition month this month, discover the subtle signs to watch for in your own cat. Learn about the behavioral changes, physical indications, and innovative diagnostic tools like the "Feline Grimace Scale" that can help you gauge your cat's well-being and how to help them feel their best.

Cat sleeping on a radiator

The Mind of a Cat

Cats tend not to show us how they are feeling and are more reclusive regarding their pain. Cats may hide from their owners, become more withdrawn from their surroundings, or have more subtle cues to let us know they may not feel well. Cats also tend to hide in pain, so if you notice your cat in unusual spots, it may be best to have them evaluated. Newer research has given us insight into treatments and diagnostics for our older feline friends. However, their family knows them best, so it is essential to monitor for changes and let their veterinarian know if you notice any changes that concern you. 

Reading Your Cat's Behavior

Sometimes the most noticeable changes will be in their behavior. For example, they aren’t as active or not jumping up or off of their favorite spots. Cats love to be up high to observe, but if they can no longer make it to their favorite spots, they could have underlying changes such as arthritis. They may also not go up and down stairs as comfortably, so make sure they have access to food, water, and their litter box on different levels of the house. If you notice they cannot use the litter box, they may need a lower or more accessible one closer to where they spend their time. 

Your cat may be less likely to play with toys or housemates. They may also be less likely to cuddle, or you may notice them biting, hissing, or vocalizing when being petted or picked up. Your cat may also resent being groomed where they did not previously. Monitor for changes in grooming habits like, over or under grooming. Matted, dirty fur coats indicate that your cat may no longer be grooming. Some cats will actually overgroom and irritate the spots on their body where they are painful. 

The Feline Grimace Scale

Another recent study being evaluated for feline pain is the “Feline Grimace Scale.” The scale shows facial expressions and postures your cat could be making to show us they are painful. There is a picture scale of the different levels of grimace so you can compare them to your cat. The scale compares 3 cats, one with no pain, one with moderate pain, and one with obvious signs of pain. The most obvious sign of pain will look like your cat with eyes closed, ears down and rotated outwards, and their muzzle will seem tense.

Feline Grimace Scale
Credit: Facial expressions of pain in cats: the development and validation of a Feline
Grimace Scale

If you notice any of these changes or have other concerns about your cat's wellbeing, please talk to your veterinarian. Feline pain has long been underreported but with with recent advances in short and long term pain management in cats, cats can experience long, happy, comfortable lives.