Cats are masters at not showing pain. This instinct to hide pain is a legacy of their wild origins. In the wild, an animal that appears to be sick or disabled is vulnerable to attack from predators, and survival instinct dictates to act as if nothing is wrong, even when something most definitely is.
This presents a challenge for cat guardians trying to assess whether their cats are experiencing acute, or even chronic, pain. Often, subtle behavior changes are the only clue that something is wrong. Look for the following:
- decreased appetite
- decreased activity
- increased grooming, or biting, of a specific body part
- altered facial expression or posture
- increased body tension or flinching in response to gentle touch
- rapid breathing
- dilated pupils
Any or all of these signs can be an indicator that your cat is in pain.
As cats age, they become more susceptible to chronic pain from osteoarthritis. Unfortunately, this condition is often underdiagnosed because the signs can be so subtle. Your cat may not be able to jump as high as he used to, but frequently, cat guardians will just chalk this up to “old age.”
Two studies funded by the Morris Animal Foundation are looking at ways to help cat guardians and veterinarians identify and treat pain in cats. Researchers from the University of Montreal are developing two different arthritis pain scales for cats: one designed for use by owners and another for use by veterinarians. So far, their work shows promise, and next steps for the project include laboratory trials to increase the tests’ sensitivity and make them even better at detecting pain.
At North Carolina State University, another study funded by the Foundation is also building a tool for diagnosing pain by developing a subjective owner-based questionnaire that could help owners and veterinarians assess how well cats are responding to treatments.
Pain management options for cats are limited because of the unique physiology of the cat and how drugs are metabolized, and treating your cat’s pain may often involve multiple medications or modalities. In addition to medication, holistic remedies, acupuncture and Reiki can be important components of comprehensive pain management.
If you suspect that your cat is in pain, consult with your veterinarian. Don’t leave pain untreated – of all the measures of good quality of life, pain ranks at the top.
Photo by Paulo Ordoveza, Flickr Creative Commons