Few of us can glance at a cat and know exactly what’s on his mind. Felines are complicated creatures, with a natural talent for hiding pain, stress or discomfort.
But if you pay careful attention and know exactly what to look for, you’ll discover that cats do offer subtle signs when they need our help or attention. Here’s how to figure out exactly what your cat may be trying to tell you through his behavior.
Cats: Masters at Masking Emotions
“Almost all animals will hide their pain,” says Sue Bulanda, a certified member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. And that certainly includes cats. Bulanda says this masking of pain or distress is all about survival instincts and self-protection.
“The natural world is a dangerous place for felines,” adds Marilyn Krieger, a certified cat behavior consultant at The Cat Coach and author. “Displaying pain visually or verbally will attract other animals. Felines who are injured are weaker, slower, and easier to catch.”
Although most pet cats enjoy cozy lives far removed from any real danger—unless the vacuum counts as a predator—Krieger says that house cats are not truly domesticated, and still have “two paws firmly planted in the wild.” This explains why those masking instincts are still so strong.
Warning Signs Your Cat Is Crying for Help
So how do cats cry for help when there is often no actual crying involved? Bulanda and Krieger offered their insights into the signs that a cat is sick, in pain, depressed, stressed, or otherwise struggling.
Sudden changes in behavior or routine. There are plenty of specifics to keep an eye out for, but in general, Bulanda says it’s crucial to observe your cat’s everyday behaviors when he’s healthy and relaxed. That way you’ll be able to spot any big changes, which may indicate that something is amiss.
Hiding or withdrawing. Cats who hide or withdraw from interactions with their family are often not feeling well, whether it’s due to anxiety or a physical illness. If your cat is suddenly sneaking away more than normal, it may be time to evaluate potential stressors or schedule a veterinary visit.
Changes in appetite or thirst. If a cat is suddenly eating or drinking significantly more or less than their usual amount, it could be due to depression, stress, or sickness. Different illnesses can lead to an increase in thirst and urination or inappetence, so it’s important to monitor your cat and call your vet if there are changes in your cat’s eating and drinking habits.
Notable differences in gait. Changes may include how your cat is walking, jumping, sitting, lying down and getting up. These can all be signs that a cat is experiencing muscular or internal pain, Bulanda says.
Avoiding the litter box or using it more often. The litter box is a surprisingly revealing place for any issues. Some cats may snub the litter box when expressing their annoyance or stress, but changes – like urinating outside of the litter box – can also indicate a medical concern.
A sudden decrease in activity. A gradual decrease in activity is normal as cats age, but if your pet is suddenly and uncharacteristically lethargic, it may be a sign that something is wrong.
Changes to the condition of his coat. In particular, keep an eye out for dullness or more hair loss than usual. These can be symptoms of a medical problem. Keep an eye out for mats, too. Cats are usually great at self grooming, so an unkempt coat can indicate that pain is preventing normal grooming habits.
Sudden aggression toward other household animals or humans. If a normally docile pet is suddenly showing aggression, it may be time for a trip to the veterinarian to make sure she isn’t ill, injured, or experiencing other issues.
Overgrooming. Cats normally display healthy grooming habits. But if a cat is grooming themselves more than normal, this can indicate there’s an underlying issue. Overgrooming can signal pain, skin allergies or parasites, or a high level of stress.
Low-pitched yowling. Your cat may be literally crying for help. Mournful howls can be a sign that your cat is feeling sad or depressed, or that they’re experiencing pain.
What to Do If Your Cat Exhibits These Warning Signs
Bulanda says that any changes in a cat’s behavior – especially those listed above – that last for more than a few days should prompt a visit to the veterinarian.
“Cats are subtle,” Krieger notes. “Chances are that when you notice the changes in behavior, the problem has been occurring for a while.”
7 Tips for Keeping Cats Happy
If everything checks out at the veterinarian, your cat may just be looking for more attention or could be searching for stress relief. Tune into your cat and do what you can to give him the very best life possible. Here are some ways to help:
Give them an outdoor outlet. “One of the most important ways to keep a cat healthy and safe,” Bulanda says, “is to not allow the cat to be an indoor/outdoor cat. Every time a cat is allowed to roam, they are exposed to many risks, some of them life-threatening.”
Instead, she recommends creating an outdoor cat enclosure if possible so your pet can spend time outside while staying safe. “This will keep the cat entertained, allow them to sit in the sun and shade, and explore,” she says. Just be sure to check in periodically and don’t leave a cat outside alone for long periods.
Prepare them for what life will hold. Bulanda also recommends acclimating your cat to all the things he may encounter in daily life: handling, going inside a carrier, riding in the car, and meeting strangers. Having him used to all of that will help take the stress out of trips to the veterinarian or groomer.
Offer choices. Krieger says that choice is important to cats, so offer it whenever you can. This might revolve around treat choices or toy choices. Let your feline friend make the call.
Make him feel safe. This includes not ever forcing your cat to be petted or cuddled when he’s not feeling it, Krieger says. And don’t punish him, even if you don’t like his behavior. Instead, figure out the reason he’s doing that behavior and try to address it.
Teach them tricks. Bulanda says teaching your cat tricks and working on training can be a great way to bond with your cat and keep him active.
Find high-quality food. Bulanda stresses the importance of a high-quality diet for cats—something she says you won’t often find in supermarket or big-box store options.
Provide plenty of enrichment. Whether it’s vertical territory, scratching posts, or chew toys, filling your cat’s home with fun and stimulating objects is essential to their general well-being, according to Krieger.