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How do You Know if Your Cat is in Pain?

Reviewed by Robert M. DuFort, DVM, DACVIM on Friday, October 28, 2016
Posted November 02, 2016 in Cat Checkups & Preventive Care

cat hiding behind chair

Assessing pain is a complicated challenge, especially in cats. Pain has two primary components: the sensory aspect (intensity, location and duration) and the affective aspect (emotional toll).

Because pain assessment is somewhat subjective, veterinarians constantly try to create tools that make this process more objective. For validity, any pain measuring tool should take into consideration both characteristics: the sensory and the affective.

Signs of pain in cats
A British study was recently conducted in order to reach a consensus about criteria when evaluating pain in cats. A total of 91 signs, chosen from the existing literature, were assessed during four rounds of evaluation, by 19 feline medicine experts. Some worked in private practice, others in veterinary schools1.

Ultimately, 25 signs were considered to be reliable and sensitive for indicating pain in cats, across a range of different clinical conditions1:

Top 5 signs

  • Appetite decrease
  • Avoiding bright areas
  • Growling
  • Groaning
  • Eyes closed

Other signs included: Lameness, difficulty to jump, abnormal gait, reluctant to move, reaction to touch, withdrawing/hiding, absence of grooming, playing less, overall activity decrease, less rubbing toward people, general mood, temperament, hunched up posture, shifting of weight, licking a particular body region, lower head posture, eyelids tightly shut, change in form of feeding behavior, straining to urinate, tail flitching

The top 5 signs are indicative of severe pain. Behavioral changes, such as irritability, tend to be seen with more long-term pain. The other signs can be observed with less intense pain. All of these signs cover both the sensorial and the emotional aspects of pain1.

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Dr. Phil Zeltzman is a board-certified veterinary surgeon and author. His traveling practice takes him all over Eastern Pennsylvania and Western New Jersey. You can visit his website at, and follow him at