Pain in cats is tricky. It’s not that cats don’t experience pain. Surgery or injury, for example, can be painful for cats. However, cats do their best to hide their pain from us, making it difficult (even for veterinarians) to detect.
Untreated pain, though, will eventually take a noticeable toll on a cat’s health and well-being.
Keep reading to learn more about identifying when your cat is in pain and doing what you can to relieve your cat’s discomfort. Trust us — your cat will thank you!
How to Tell if a Cat Is in Pain
In the wild, showing signs of pain makes a cat vulnerable. Domesticated cats have not lost that tendency to hide their pain. Fortunately, cats give clues, sometimes subtle, that indicate they’re in pain. Here’s what to look for:
- Decreased energy
- Bathroom accidents
- Increased vocalizations
- Eating and drinking less
- Social isolation/withdrawal
- Changes in sleeping and grooming habits
- Increased aggression, especially if touched in painful spots
Physical or Postural Signs
- Hunched posture
- Front paws folded under
- Legs tucked underneath the body
- Flattened ears
- Enlarged pupils
Because these clues can be subtle, knowing your cat’s normal behavior, routines, and physical appearance will help you recognize when something is a little off with your cat. Also, be aware that some of these clues, such as eating and drinking less, are not specific to pain.
If you do notice any of these clues, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian to have your cat’s pain evaluated.
Diagnosing Cat Pain
Cats don’t just hide their pain around their owners. The veterinary office can be scary for cats, causing them to go into ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ mode and hide their pain even more.
Therefore, your veterinarian will need detailed information from you about your cat’s pain, such as what signs of pain you noticed and when.
Your veterinarian will conduct a complete physical exam, paying particular attention to signs of pain. One particularly helpful tool veterinarians use to assess cat pain is the Feline Grimace Scale.
Once your veterinarian determines why your cat is in pain, they will recommend a pain management plan.
What Can I Give My Cat for Pain?
We’ll say this first: Do not give your cat any pain medicine before seeing your veterinarian and learning why your cat is in pain. Certain human pain medicines can be toxic to cats, so you should not give your cat any pain medicine without your veterinarian’s approval and supervision.
Veterinary-Prescribed Pain Relief for Cats
Prescription pain medications are often the go-to method to provide pain relief for cats. Several categories of pain medications are available for cats. These include:
Opioids: Opioids, such as buprenorphine and the fentanyl skin patch, are prescribed for moderate to severe pain in cats. They can be given for a few days or long-term to manage chronic pain.
Steroids: Steroids, such as prednisone, reduce inflammation and pain. Because steroids can produce adverse side effects like diabetes and delayed healing, they are given for only a short period.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): NSAIDs, such as meloxicam, are effective for treating mild to moderate pain. However, NSAIDs increase the risks of gastrointestinal bleeding and liver and kidney damage. Veterinarians use extreme caution when prescribing NSAIDs for cat pain.
In addition to these drug categories, other prescription pain medications for cats include gabapentin and maropitant.
Other Pain Management Methods for Cats
There are also non-prescription methods for managing pain in cats.
For example, joint supplements for cats that contain chondroitin and glucosamine can relieve arthritis-related pain by supporting joint health. Omega-3 fatty acid supplements decrease inflammation and can also help relieve pain from arthritis.
CBD has become increasingly popular in veterinary medicine. Although studies have reported CBD’s ability to relieve osteoarthritis-related pain in dogs, CBD has not yet been extensively studied in cats. Thus, we cannot recommend CBD supplementation as a pain relief method for cats.
Therapies such as acupuncture (yes, cats can have acupuncture!), physical therapy, and massage are all effective at relieving a cat’s pain. They can be used as complements to prescription pain medications to make your cat even more comfortable.
In addition to these non-prescription therapies, you can also make your cat’s physical environment more comfortable:
Keep your cat’s essentials close. Move your cat’s food bowl, water bowl, and litter box closer to your cat’s sleeping area. Keeping these items closer to your cat will make it easier for your cat to eat, drink, and go to the bathroom.
Try an orthopedic bed. Provide your cat with an orthopedic bed if they have arthritis. Orthopedic pet beds provide extra cushioning at common pain points, like the hips.
Reduce slippery surfaces. Use more rugs. Rugs will give your cat more traction as they walk, unlike a slippery floor.
Can Cats Have Tylenol, Advil, or Other NSAIDs for Pain?
The short answer is no. Over-the-counter (OTC) human pain relievers are toxic and fatal to cats. Under no circumstance should you give your cat an OTC pain medicine.
Three Ways to Prevent Pain in Cats
With cats living longer, it is more likely that they will experience painful health challenges in their golden years. These health challenges are not always preventable.
Although you may not be able to prevent all pain for your cat, there are some things you can do to keep your cat as healthy, happy, and pain-free as you can:
Keep your cat at a healthy weight. Excess weight puts extra, painful pressure on the joints. A proper diet and daily physical activity will help keep your cat at their ideal weight.
Take your cat for wellness exams. Wellness exams help your veterinarian detect potential health problems that could cause your cat pain and discomfort. The earlier an illness is detected, the earlier it can be treated.
Keep your cat indoors. The outdoors includes risks for your cat, such as cars, wildlife, and feral cats. Your home will protect your cat from outdoor dangers that could result in injury and pain.
Cats are master disguisers of pain, but they still need our help in relieving that pain. Pay close attention to your cat and take them to the vet if they start to show any signs of pain.