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The Hidden Signs: How to Detect Pain in Cats

Cats are notorious for being somewhat difficult to read when it comes to detecting pain. They are masters at hiding discomfort, which makes it challenging for owners and veterinarians alike to evaluate how they’re really feeling.

Unfortunately, this can lead to an underdiagnosis of pain and prevent timely intervention, which can ultimately jeopardize a cat’s well-being. But why do cats hide pain, and what signs should you be looking for?

In this article, we’ll explore these important questions and provide you with valuable insights to help you spot subtle clues that indicate your feline friend may be experiencing discomfort.

Difficulty in Detecting

Pain in Cats

One of the primary challenges in evaluating feline pain is that the signs can be subtle and may not always be obvious. Unlike humans, cats can’t verbally communicate their discomfort, leaving owners and veterinarians to interpret behavioral cues and physical changes that might suggest pain.

Subtle Signs

Due to the natural instinct of cats to mask pain, the signs of feline discomfort are not always clear-cut. Some changes you may observe include:

– Withdrawal or hiding

– Loss of appetite

– Lethargy and reduced activity levels

– Excessive grooming

– Sleeping more than usual

– Changes in litter box habits, such as difficulty in urinating or defecating

– Irritability and aggression

– Disinterest in previously enjoyable activities

– Reduced water intake

– Changes in posture or mobility

It’s important to note that these indicators are not exclusive to pain and may be caused by other underlying issues.

Therefore, a thorough examination by a veterinarian is necessary to rule out other ailments and determine whether the cat is experiencing pain.

Behavioral Changes as Signs of


Cats can reveal discomfort through their behavior and temperament. The signs to look out for include:


Cats tend to be meticulous about grooming, and any change in their grooming habits may indicate discomfort. A cat in pain may over-groom a particular area, such as the site of an injury, to alleviate discomfort, or they may avoid grooming altogether.

Activity and Sleeping Habits

A reluctance to participate in activities they once enjoyed is a sign of pain, as is sleeping more than usual. Reduced activity levels indicate that the cat is not feeling well, while excessive sleep may indicate that the body is using energy resources to heal.

Litter Box

Changes in the cat’s litter box habits can be an indication of pain, such as avoiding using the litter tray or crying out when using it. They may also display signs of straining when urinating or defecating, which may indicate a urinary tract infection or digestive discomfort.

Irritability and Appetite

Cats in pain may be irritable or aggressive when approached, avoiding socialization. Additionally, the cat may have a reduced appetite or disinterest in food, which may indicate that they are experiencing pain when eating or have an underlying gastrointestinal discomfort.


Cats are typically graceful creatures, and any changes in their posture or gait may indicate pain. For instance, they may hunch over or appear unwilling to move, which could be a sign of back pain or joint problems.

Cats’ Ability to Hide


Cats are known for their ability to hide pain, a trait that has distinct evolutionary roots that helped these creatures survive and thrive in the wild. Predators and hawks were attracted to vulnerable prey, and any outward signs of pain would have signalled weakness, attracting unwanted attention and potentially resulting in the cat becoming another animal’s meal.

Evolutionary Reasons for Hiding


Today, cats still use this survival skill to their benefit. They mask their discomfort, even from owners, to avoid drawing attention to themselves and becoming prey-like.

However, this evolutionary trait can prove problematic for any cat in pain, as it means that pain often goes unnoticed, resulting in delayed treatment.

Veterinary Challenges in Detecting

Pain in Cats

Detecting pain in cats can be a challenging task due to various reasons, including:

Fear and Anxiety

Cats are usually less predictable than dogs when it comes to their behavior around strangers and new environments. They may become fearful during veterinary visits, which can lead to changes in their behavior that make it more challenging to accurately identify pain.

Decrease in

Pain Perception

Repeated unrelenting pain can cause a decreased sensitivity to pain, making it challenging for a cat to communicate pain to their caregivers or express discomfort. In medical terms, this phenomenon is referred to as “pain indifference.”

Veterinary Visits

Cats often dislike veterinary visits, associating the experience with discomfort. This association can make the cat less cooperative during the visit, causing challenges in performing a thorough examination and limiting the veterinarian’s ability to detect pain.

Final thoughts

Understanding your cat’s behavior and body language can provide valuable information when trying to determine whether your cat is experiencing pain. With subtle signs of pain and cats’ ability to hide how they feel, it’s critical to schedule regular veterinary check-ups to ensure your cat remains in good health.

By knowing what to expect, you can take better care of your feline friend and ensure they remain healthy and pain-free for years to come. Cats are often referred to as “fastidious groomers,” their unique grooming habits reminiscent of their feline ancestors that relied on self-cleaning to keep themselves safe from predators in the wild.

Grooming behavior also serves as an essential communication tool for cats; it helps to signal their emotional state, social status, and physical needs. Any changes in grooming habits, which include decreased grooming or a change in grooming behavior, may be an indication of pain or illness.

Changes in

Grooming Habits

Cats that are experiencing discomfort may show changes in grooming habits, including decreased grooming and an unkempt coat. Rather than look to their owners for comfort and reassurance, cats may become less focused on their grooming routine, resulting in a lack of internal structure.

Cats that are in pain may not feel comfortable in their own skin, finding it challenging to reach some areas, leading to matted or dirty fur. Decreased


Cats are instinctively fastidious groomers, providing a shiny coat, ridding them of excess hair and keeping their fur free of tangles and mats.

A decrease in grooming behavior or a lack of grooming, such as leaving clumps of fur or having oily and dirty fur, can be a warning sign of underlying health problems. This behavior is even more concerning in short-haired cats, as they typically do not have as complicated of a grooming routine compared to their long-haired counterparts.

Changes in Habits

Pay attention to any changes in grooming habits, such as how frequently your cat cleans themselves or if they groom less in certain areas. Cats that groom less often may be signaling aches and pains in both those focal areas and other body parts.

Unkempt fur or clumps of fur falling out can be an indicator of pain in the joints or sore muscles. Reasons for Decreased



Cats experiencing pain may stop grooming because it hurts to do so.

Grooming requires a flexing of the spine, neck, and limbs, which may be too uncomfortable to do with an injury or soreness.

For cats, grooming tasks like stretching or maintaining a certain posture, and it requires complete flexibility to perform efficiently. Anything that hinders their range of motion, such as an injury, arthritis or internal pain can interfere with their grooming habits.

Discomfort and


Cats that are ill or in discomfort from an underlying condition may not have the energy to devote to grooming. If a cat is experiencing nausea or a diminished appetite, they may not have the same appetite for grooming or a desire as usual to undertake the laborious task.

Changes in grooming behavior can also stem from medical conditions, such as thyroid or kidney disease, that decrease a cat’s mobility and make grooming a more challenging task.

Behavioral Changes as a Sign of


Changes in behavior of cats experiencing pain can range from mood swings to altered engagement in regular activities. Most cats that suffer from pain will hide or withdraw, becoming less active, and less social.

These behaviors may be subtle, and pet owners need to know what to look for.

Withdrawal and Hiding

Cats that feel unwell may hide more frequently from humans and typically avoid social interactions or any attempts at petting. They may even choose to isolate themselves to rest quietly.

Other cats will exhibit similar behaviors but may not hide away in specific spots. Instead, they may become more “offish” than usual, not wanting to stay around other people in the house and may avoid socializing with other pets.

These changes may be evidence of pain or discomfort, and your cat may prefer the solace of isolation to cope.

Engagement in Normal Behaviors

Pain will often interfere with your cat’s enjoyment of life, and as a result, they may entirely stop engaging in activities they once loved, such as playing or exploration. This behavior may be accompanied by withdrawal and a less active state.

Changes in appetite also go hand in hand with behavioral changes, and cats in pain may lose interest in food.

Reasons for Change in Behavior


Cats that are experiencing pain will adopt new behaviors to cope and adapt to their discomfort. These behaviors may include hiding away from people and other animals, being less active than usual, or avoiding the groom altogether.

Because cats are so adept at hiding signs of pain, a change in behavior will become one of the first indicators of an underlying problem for pet owners to detect.


A change in behavior may also be a symptom of an underlying medical condition. Arthritis, which is a usual condition in aging cats, can make mobility challenging and require different methods of movement.

Medical conditions, such as kidney disease, may cause a change in behavior, leading to urination outside of the litter tray, lethargy, or not being very active.

Final thoughts

Cats, by design, are excellent at hiding their pain. Owners should track changes in grooming habits and behavior and be vigilant to identify any signs of discomfort.

If you suspect your cat is in pain, the best course of action is to schedule a veterinary visit to explore underlying medical conditions and ensure your cat remains healthy. As always, regular screenings and checkups will help your cat maintain optimal health and a happy life.

Cats are known for their agility and grace, chasing prey, and scaling great heights. However, when cats experience pain, the very same tasks they once accomplished with ease become challenging, resulting in less activity and reduced energy levels.

Pet owners should keep an eye on their cat’s routine to detect any changes indicating pain or discomfort.

Changes in Activity Level

The decrease in activity level or extreme lethargy can be an indication that your cat is experiencing pain. Cats with pain may have a reluctance to engage in activities they once enjoyed and may experience difficulty in getting up and down from surfaces.

The pain may be localized, limiting their mobility or generalized throughout their body, affecting their stamina and endurance.

Less Energy

Pain is exhausting for cats, and they may have less energy than usual with seemingly minimal tasks, such as coming downstairs, feeling like a monumental challenge. A reduction in energy levels can be a warning sign of an underlying issue that requires medical attention.

As some cats become older, they may experience age-related changes to the joints, which can cause pain and stiffness, reducing their energy levels.


A significant indicator of discomfort in cats is the reluctance to do things they formerly enjoyed. They may not seek to play or go outside, and they will display their discomfort in their movements.

A cat in pain may avoid activities that call for sudden changes in direction or frequent jumping. Alternatively, they may even avoid standing up and walking altogether.

Changes in Sleeping Patterns

Changes in sleeping patterns are another way cats deal with pain, with some cats sleeping more, while others sleep less. Changes in sleeping patterns may indicate underlying pain or discomfort.

More or Less Sleep

Cats in pain may sleep excessively to cope with discomfort. As cats tend to be independent animals, sleeping in unusual positions or places may signal their discomfort, as they may be unable to sleep soundly on their side or curling up comfortably.

Nevertheless, pain may also cause insomnia, making it difficult for the cat to sleep. A cat experiencing pain may be overtired from consciously or subconsciously attempting to avoid any pain triggers.

Unusual Positions and Places

Cats may choose to move to unusual sleeping locations that provide more comfort or ease due to pain. These alternate sleeping spots may surprise pet owners, but the cat has found an area that provides enough space for pain relief and makes sleeping a welcome prospect.

Therefore, unexplained behavior for any given cat may suggest a current medical condition and cause for concern.

Litter Box Changes as a Sign of


One way cats communicate that they are experiencing pain or discomfort is through changes in their litter box behavior. A change in litter box habits such as missing the litter box or showing excessive interest may be an indicator of an underlying issue.

Missing the

Litter Box

Cats in pain may avoid the litter box, with some not using it altogether, leading to urination or defecation around the house. For instance, if they are experiencing pain in their joints, they may find it difficult to climb into the box, while other conditions may cause them to squat differently, thus avoiding the tray.

Difficulty Squatting

Painful joints or arthritis can make it physically difficult for a cat to assume a natural squatting position, leading to litter box accidents. Consequently, cats may avoid the litter box altogether, knowing that it won’t provide them with the level of comfort they desire.


Cats that are experiencing pain in their bladder or kidneys may experience a sudden urge to urinate, leading to accidents on the way to the litter box or around the vicinity. Frequent visits to the litter box and producing minimal or no urine also indicate pain in the cat.

Reasons for Changes in

Litter Box Habits

Medical Issues

Pain may be an indication of underlying medical issues that can lead to changes in litter box behavior. Chronic pain from medical conditions such as bladder infections, kidney stones, or urinary tract infections can make using the litter box uncomfortable and in some cases may be entirely irresistible.


With painful conditions, such as arthritis or joint issues, your cat may avoid the litter box altogether or choose to defecate outside the tray. They may also take up dwelling positions during litter box use, indicating they require additional support, and the litter box may be too high for them to use comfortably.


The urgency to urinate can cause litter box accidents in cats, especially when their time is limited, and they typically have a specific routine. A cat owner may notice the cat hurrying to the litter box with intensity, only to miss the tray or squat outside.

This behavior may result in frequent changes in the litter and a swollen, irritated bladder.

Final thoughts

Common changes in activity, sleeping patterns, and litter box habits can indicate that a cat is experiencing pain, whether the discomfort is in the joints, bladder, or elsewhere. To better determine the underlying issue and provide a remedy to your feline friend, seek veterinary assistance.

Being attentive to your cat’s behavior and observation of changes will enable early detection and prompt treatment to ensure your pet maintains optimal health. Cats communicate their discomfort and pain primarily through changes in their behavior, including increased irritability and aggression, and changes in their eating and water intake habits.

These changes may serve as significant red flags alerting pet owners to medical issues that may necessitate a veterinary consultation.

Episodes of Aggression

Cats in pain often display signs of irritability and may become aggressive or resentful, both as an attempt for the cat to alleviate pain and signal their discomfort to their owner. However, changes in your pet’s temperament should not be considered normal behavior.

Cats that exhibit behavior such as growling, hissing, biting, and scratching may be experiencing pain and attempting to communicate this in the only way they know how. Growling, Hissing, Biting, and Scratching

Cats in pain may suddenly growl, hiss, bite, or scratch, even when it appears to be out of character.

This behavior may occur when being

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