Cats Cat-at-the-vets

Published on February 15th, 2017 | by Debbie Martin


Pain Management in Cats what you need to know

Caring for a cat can be a stressful and difficult experience, but it is also a rewarding one. Cats are very good at disguising their discomfort from humans and so when your cat is in pain, it is very difficult to tell. This is in sharp contrast to dogs, who will communicate their discomfort readily.

In the wild, it is vital that cats do not display any sign of weakness. This is because doing so might leave them vulnerable to attack. For the modern, domestic cat, this stoicism is a disadvantage; it can often delay the diagnosis of painful and debilitating illnesses by weeks or even months.

It is therefore important to keep a close watch on your cat, always looking for changes in its behavior which might indicate that it is in pain. In order to do this, however, we need to know what to look for. In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the possible causes of cat pain, ways of identifying it and methods in which pain Management in cats can be addressed.

Is my cat in pain?

While it can be extremely difficult to discern whether or not your cat is in pain, there are a number of signs which owners should look out for.

Cats which are in pain may not want to eat. Perhaps the pain is centered on the parts of the body concerned with chewing and digestion. If your cat desists eating, then they should be taken to a vet for a check up immediately – not eating can cause their condition to deteriorate very quickly.

Cats in pain may also become immobile– possibly because moving causes them further pain. This is a common symptom of osteoarthritis (which we will look at in a little more detail later on). The animal’s grooming patterns may change or they may lose interest in keeping themselves clean. Equally, if their pain is localized at a specific part of their body, they may groom that part obsessively.

Any sudden change in your cat’s behavior can indicate that something is causing them pain. Do not ignore these changes – take the cat to the vet and see if anything can be done.

Should I do anything to stop the pain?

Pain should be addressed where possible. Besides causing the animal to suffer unnecessarily, pain can also cause a loss of healing capacity and a loss of weight. Once the pain has been reduced to a manageable level, the source of the pain can be addressed. This can mean removing the cat from an environment which has caused it injury, or it can mean treating an underlying illness.

What conditions might cause the cat pain?

Almost all pathologies which affect your cat are painful ones. There are a few, however, which are particularly so. Let’s take a look at some of the conditions which might cause your cat to suffer – first the obvious ones, and then the ones you might not notice.

Visible conditions.

Pain brought about by injury is the easiest variety to spot – after all, if your cat has a broken leg or tail, then the symptoms will be obvious. Suffice to say, such injuries can be very painful and a vet will prescribe painkillers in order to deal with the pain in the short term, while the injury is healing.

Another obvious cause of pain is an infection to the cat’s visible organs. A cat’s eyes, ears, mouth and skin can all become infected. Some of these infections can be particularly painful. Look for a bad smell coming from the infected site and emissions of puss – both are sure signs of infection. If your cat recoils from you whenever you attempt to touch the problem area, then you can be confident that the condition is causing them pain.

Hidden conditions

On the other hand, there are some common conditions whose symptoms are less obvious. Of these, infections to the cat’s internal organs are common. If your cat’s digestive or excretory system should become infected, then your cat can suffer a great deal of pain. Unfortunately, these conditions are difficult to spot – unless you know what to look for. One symptom of such an infection is incontinence. If your cat has taken to urinating and defecating where it shouldn’t, then you should take it to a vet.

Other conditions come about far more gradually. Osteoarthritis, for example, is a condition whose sufferers experience a huge amount of joint pain, as a result of a gradual loss of cartilage between the joints. This cartilage is what prevents the animal’s bones from rubbing against one another. Its loss is therefore very painful.

Arthritic cats experience pain whenever they have to move and so will try to avoid doing so. If your cat has become less active, unwilling to climb stairs or even jump up onto the sofa, then it could be a sign of arthritis. They may also respond aggressively when they are stroked or cuddled, because the jostling of their bones is very painful.

Cats of all ages can suffer from arthritis, but older cats tend to be at the greatest risk. Arthritic cats will suffer progressively more as their condition deteriorates. It is important to take steps to address the situation before this deterioration occurs, since once the cartilage is gone, it cannot be replaced.

Managing the pain of arthritis is an essential part of treating the condition, as cats which grow obese through lack of exercise will thereby place further strain on their joints. Vets will therefore seek to manage the pain when dealing with the condition.

Stress and the vet

Visits to the vet can be a stressful experience for cats. There are a lot of other strange animals there, the smells are unfamiliar and the trip will necessarily involve being restrained and uncomfortable. If your cat needs to undergo surgery, then this stress will be even greater.

Where your animal’s pain is stress-related, then this can be even more problematic. If the stress is particularly severe, then the vet might recommend an anti-anxiety drug for the stay, or even a gas-based anesthetic.

Drug options

When we humans find ourselves in pain, we tend to reach for the nearest box of over-the-counter medication. Similarly, if we find that our dogs are in pain, then a vet can prescribe something which will help them to deal with it. Where cats are concerned, this task is altogether more difficult. There are a few reasons for this, but the most significant stem from the cat’s biology.

The peculiar makeup of a cat’s liver limits the amount of drugs that their body can process at one time. The liver of a dog or a human has a highly efficient glucuronidation pathway. This is the pathway which allows them to metabolize non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs, for short), and thereby allows them to take drugs like aspirin safely. In cats, this pathway is present, but it is vastly less efficient. This means that it cannot remove the toxins fast enough, which leads quickly to gastric irritation, which can in turn result in vomiting, ulceration and even haemorrhages.

The opioid group of painkillers, which contains morphine and its cousins, can be administered to cats safely, but only when the doses are correct. An overdose can result in other nasty side-effects. Modern veterinary medicine has a much better understanding as to what these doses actually are, so this group of painkillers constitutes a powerful weapon in the battle against feline pain.


If the animal’s suffering is particularly severe and their hope of recovery is negligible, then a vet may recommend that it be put to sleep indefinitely. Euthanasia performed using a lethal injection. It is a quick and relatively pain-free, taking place in a matter of seconds.

While ending your cat’s life can seem a horrifying idea, allowing your cat to waste away to nothing is far worse. The Blue Cross outline the procedure in detail and their advice is well worth reading in full if you are considering euthanizing your pet.

That said, when this option is undertaken, it can be very stressful. Consider taking a friend with you to the procedure to support you. You might also wish to take some time off work in order to overcome the loss.

In conclusion

Caring for a cat which is in pain can be a stressful experience. Cat owners often feel powerless – particularly if the pain is evident and unmistakable.

Sometimes the causes of the pain can be addressed, but sometimes the causes are a lot more deep-rooted and chronic. In either case, the pain must be managed. There are a range of tools at the disposal of modern animal medicine and it is important to make use of them to minimize the suffering of the animal. If you think that your cat is in pain, then you should take it to a vet and talk through the available options. This will help to ensure that your cat has the best possible quality of life.

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About the Author

Debbie Martin has worked at Beeston Animal Health for over five years, having previously worked as a nurse in equine and small animal practice. Although generally involved with aspects of marketing these days and putting her psychology degree to good use, she still has a great depth of up to date knowledge in all creatures great and small. Debbie lives at home with her partner and two children and spends much of her spare time looking after her horses, dogs and cats or at the home farm with the cows, sheep and turkeys.

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