Westbury Animal Hospital
713.723.3666 · 4917 S. Willow Dr. Houston, Texas 77035 

Recognizing Pain in Cats

By Kathleen Gressot, DVM

We think of cats as predators – they hunt and bring their spoils into the house when we wish they didn’t. However, in the grand scheme of things, domestic cats are actually prey animals. They’re small and have a number of bigger animals that can hurt them. Instinctually, they act like prey too – which means they try their best to hide absolutely any weakness, even from their family. When they are in pain or sick, for whatever the reason, they will hide it until they are physically unable to any longer. Like an iceberg, they only show a little when there is something major going on underneath. So how do you, as an owner, know when your feline would benefit from some pain management? There are several subtle ways they’ll clue you in.

Decreased appetite – whether it’s just too painful to get to the bowl, or they have mouth pain from dental disease

Dropping food – sign of mouth pain

Grooming one area excessively – relieves pain, like when you rub your finger after getting it jammed in a door

Decreased overall grooming – hurts to twist the way they need to reach everywhere

Decreased frequency of eliminations – hurts to get in/out of the box or to get into the right posture

Frequent visits to the litterbox – pain urinating or defecating. They give up but then have to try again

Sleeping more and/or playing less – it hurts less when they’re still

Restlessness – can’t get comfortable

Increased “crankiness”, with people and or other animals – hurts when they’re touched

Decreased jumping, not jumping as high, hesitating to jump

Stiff when waking up, then doing better after warming up – classic sign of osteoarthritis

Squinty eyes, compact posture (staying curled up) – sign of general discomfort


If you see any of these signs, make an appointment with your veterinarian and discuss your concerns. A thorough physical exam will be done to try to find any tender areas. Based on their findings, they may make several suggestions such as:

   Radiographs – confirm osteoarthritis or other causes of bone pain

   Dental work – cleaning teeth, helping make gums healthy, pulling infected or dead teeth

   Weight loss – lessen the burden on joints

   Diet change to help improve urination/defecation

   Provide ramps/stairs so that your cat can still perch up high

   Move food, water, etc. onto the ground instead of up on a counter

   Purchase a litterbox with a lower opening and move them to easily accessible areas of the house

   Starting a pain management regimen – pain medication, anti-inflammatories, and joint supplementation can really help

Cats are wonderful creatures, but also quite confounding too (why do they always want to knock things off the tables/counters?!). They are creatures of habit and, really, any change in routine is a sign to pay closer attention.


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