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How to tell when your cat is in pain


However well you know your cat, it can be tricky to spot that something is causing her discomfort or pain. Clinical animal behaviourist Inga MacKellar explains how to recognise the symptoms.


‘Cats are very independent-minded and solitary creatures by nature, so they don’t have a wide range of social expressions and signals to communicate when they’re in pain,’ says Inga. ‘That means the signs can be subtle and easy to miss. But the earlier you realise that something isn’t right, the quicker you can get a veterinary diagnosis on the cause of pain and the best way to treat it.’

Here are eight potential pain pointers she believes every owner should look out for:

1. A change in behaviour

‘Behavioural changes are key signals of pain in cats. You know your cat’s everyday habits best, and the more you’re tuned in to what’s normal behaviour for her, the easier it should be to realise when she may be suffering,’ says Inga. For example, she may start to sleep in dark or unusual places, or even disappear somewhere she won’t be disturbed. ‘This is because in the wild, cats tend to hide when they’re in pain or unwell. They don’t want to show predators they’re vulnerable,’ Inga explains.

2. Abnormal movement

If your normally healthy, agile cat has lost her bounce, starts holding her head in an unusual position, limping or shows reduced movement in any other way, it’s more than likely that something is causing discomfort. ‘She may also paw at her eyes or ears if they’re sore. Unusual body postures, such as flattened ears or a hunched back, could also be indicators of pain.’

3. Unusual grooming habits

Take a close look at any area of her body your cat is repeatedly licking or chewing – it may be due to a cut or wound hidden in her fur. Over-grooming may also be a symptom of pain elsewhere. On the other hand, ‘If your cat suddenly begins to lose interest in her usual grooming habits and begins to look unkempt, she may not be well,’ says Inga. ‘If you have an older cat, an inability to turn round to clean her back or hind quarters can be a sign she’s suffering from painful arthritic conditions, not just that she’s given up on personal care.’

4. A different appetite

Keep a look out for significant changes in your cat’s general eating habits, appetite and thirst. ‘She may appear to lose her appetite, or else become ravenous, letting you know she’s extremely hungry by acting in an agitated way,’ says Inga. ‘Eating in an odd manner, maybe reluctantly, as if her mouth is very sensitive, can be also a sign of painful teeth or gums.’ Any significant change in weight or eating and drinking habits should be mentioned to your vet.

5. Vocalisation

Your cat’s vocal communication may alter, both in the kind of noises she makes and when she makes them. ‘She may meow a lot less or more frequently than normal, possibly in a different pitch, or make a yelping kind of noise, maybe in response to certain movement,’ says Inga. But don’t be duped if she can still purr: ‘Cats can, and often do, purr even when in pain,’ says Inga. ‘Purring may have healing properties or possibly be a way of self-soothing when they feel most vulnerable.’

6. Toileting troubles

A sudden aversion to using the litter tray could indicate that your cat is avoiding the place she has come to associate with painful peeing or defecating, possibly due to a urinary tract infection or tummy problem. ‘Strangely coloured or odd-smelling urine, very hard stools or diarrhoea can all be signs that something is wrong, making going to the loo a painful experience,’ says Inga.

7. Aggression

A normally happy cat who begins to flinch, scratch or bite when stroked could be reacting to pain where you are touching her. ‘A sore ear, leg or back or arthritic areas will feel more painful if your usual fond stroking hits the wrong spot, and the natural response is to be defensive,’ says Inga.

8. Social life

Any change in your cat’s everyday social interaction with you needs further exploration. ‘Maybe she doesn’t want to sit on your lap, no longer comes to greet you when you come in, or doesn’t want to go outside having previously been a keen explorer. These could all be signs she’s not feeling herself and is possibly in discomfort.’

If you pick up on any of these signs and suspect that your cat may be in pain, ask your vet for advice as soon as possible.


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