Published by: Ingrid King. Last Updated on: October 31, 2022 by Crystal Uys

Guest post by Lorie Huston, DVM

None of us want to think that our cats might be in pain. And no responsible and caring cat owner would refuse to provide his/her cat with pain relief. However, pain is not always as easy to recognize in cats as one might think.

Recognizing Feline Pain

It makes sense, from a logical perspective, that if your cat has just had surgery or is recovering from an injury, he is likely to be painful. But how can a cat owner evaluate how much pain the cat is experiencing?

And what about chronic pain? Do you think you would easily recognize that your cat is suffering from arthritis? It is estimated that as many as 80-90% of senior cats show radiographic evidence of arthritis. However, very few cat owners recognize that their older cat may actually be painful from arthritis. Worse, many veterinarians overlook this possibility as well.

One of the problems in evaluating feline pain is that cats are so good at masking their symptoms. If your cat is experiencing a great deal of pain, it may be immediately obvious to you. However, especially in more chronic diseases like arthritis, the signs of pain may be very subtle and difficult to spot even for the most observant of cat owners.

What are the signs that you may see if your cat is painful?

  • Crying or vocalizing
  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Inability to sleep or rest comfortably
  • Soiling outside the litter box
  • Seeking solitude
  • Seeking extra attention
  • Experiencing pain when handled or held
  • Licking or chewing at the painful area
  • Lethargy
  • Depression
  • Lack of appetite
  • A sudden or gradual change in behavior

The Importance of Treating Pain in Cats – Why Is Pain Control Important? 

Of course, the obvious answer is that you should manage your cat’s pain because pain hurts. However, the problem actually goes much deeper than that. Being in pain will not only cause discomfort for your cat, but it can also have a deleterious effect on your cat’s health.

Pain can adversely affect your cat’s body by causing stress and resulting in a number of physiological changes. Ultimately, pain can delay wound healing, can affect major organ systems (such as the muscles and kidneys), can alter your cat’s ability to metabolize nutrients and can inflict emotional damage on your cat.

In the worst case scenario, pain can cause a cat to become so unresponsive and so depressed that a decision to euthanize may be reached erroneously assuming that the cat’s condition is not improving and is beyond hope.

If there is any doubt about whether your cat is in pain, some form of pain management is in order.

Methods to Control Pain for Your Cat 

There are many different ways to treat pain and the solution for your cat will depend on your cat’s individual situation and health.

In most cases, pain control should be multi-faceted, involving more than one form of pain medication or pain control technique. In this way, drug doses can often be reduced to safer levels and different parts of the “pain cascade” can be targeted, resulting in more effective pain control.

Some of the drugs commonly used in controlling pain in cats are:

  • Tramadol
  • Buprenorphine
  • Butorphanol (very short acting pain relief)
  • NSAIDS (such as meloxicam) – the use of these drugs is controversial in cats
  • Gabapentin
  • Amitryptiline
  • Amantadine

Other forms of pain control that may be used in cats include:

  • Acupuncture
  • Massage
  • Laser therapy
  • Hydrotherapy

These forms of pain control can be coupled with pain medications to provide more complete pain relief. In addition, pain medications can often be used in tandem also. For instance, buprenorphine may be combined with an NSAID to assure adequate pain control.

A note about aspirin and acetaminophen is warranted here. These drugs are not generally used for pain control in cats and should never be given unless advised by your veterinarian to do so. Aspirin does have some uses in cats but the dosage strength and dosing interval is much different in cats than in people. Acetaminophen and aspirin both have the potential to be toxic to cats. Both of these drugs can cause fatal toxicities.

By recognizing that cats suffer pain in much the same way humans do and being able to recognize the signs of pain in your cat, you will be better prepared to determine if your cat requires pain control. Providing adequate and complete pain control will not only make your cat more comfortable, but it will also help your cat heal faster and keep him healthier.­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­

Lorie Huston has been practicing veterinary medicine for over 20 years. Besides a successful career in a busy small animal hospital in Providence, RI, Lorie is also a successful freelance writer specializing in pet care and pet health topics. 

Photo by Kim Newburg, Public Domain Pictures

About the author

22 Comments on Pain management for cats

  1. Does anyone have feedback for the product liquid-vet holistic joint care for cats. All the reviews are raving but I don’t want to fall for hype, if that’s what it is. My 4.5 year old male tabby cat has been limping on his right front leg for about 3 months now. My vet said she could feel something in the joint that could be arthritis but I haven’t had him xrayed yet. I tried a chewable recommended by my vet but he tried it once and won’t go near them now! Thank you.

  2. Can anyone tell me how safe Onsior is? I’m giving him one pill a day for three days then 14 days off. My kitty is 17 1/2 and has multiple joint issues and MAY have cancer.

    I use homeopathy which helps but wondering if I could “dual cycle” something, hoping the overlap will keep him out of pain.

    • Onsior is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory, and as such, comes with all the potential side-effects of NSAID’s, such as possible GI ulcerations, and possible GI, kidney and liver toxicity. Given your kitty’s age and condition, you’re probably not going to be worried so much about longterm side effects, and more with providing immediate relief and quality of life, but it’s a tough call. If he’s tolerating the Onsior well and it’s giving him relief, it may be worth the risks.

  3. My Kitty just had a lung lobe removed due to cancer and I have had to “encourage” my vet for pain medicine. Today is just one week. We are going into the weekend and I am afraid that he is going to say she doesn’t need anymore. I don’t think if he had a lung removed after one week he would want to go cold turkey. 🙁

    • Not controlling pain slows down healing and recovery. I don’t understand why so many vets still feel that cats don’t need pain control.

  4. Hi Dr. Huston,
    Thank you for this very informative article. We have a 13-y-o male Maine Coon who had a spine injury as a youngster. It’s now become the site of degenerative arthritis. He’s in wonderful health otherwise, a slim 18 lbs, bright and a real clown but unless we find a way to control his pain we are going to be forced to say goodbye, which is breaking our hearts. He’s had a course of Cartrophen and is on daily Meloxicam, but we need something for the days when he hurts so badly he can’t keep anything down (even water) and he hides. Our vet is wonderful and is researching the alternatives tonight. Tramadol is something he mentioned, along with several other possibilities you have listed. Thank goodness for your site, so we can read, think a little about options and be better informed when we go back tomorrow. Thank you for your kindness, Sal’s Mom

    • I’m sorry your kitty is having these problems, Deb. My feline vet has used Adequan with good results in arthritic cats, it may be something else for your vet to look into. Also, on the alternative side, therapies such as acupuncture and Reiki can make a difference.

      • I agree with Ingrid, Deb. Adequan might be a good choice. A Fentanyl patch is something that is sometimes used as well, though there are risks in handling the patch and you need to make sure the proper precautions are used. Acupuncture is also an option as are other forms of physical therapy.

  5. This is a great article. Looking back at history I would have little or no idea if my cat was in any pain unless it was blatantly crying:( Looking ahead, I now know what to look for!

    Poker Training

    • I’m so glad this article may be helping your cat in the future – although, of course, I hope you’ll never need the information!

    • My kotty is 16. She has arthitis in her back end. Is there a vet in RI that does cold laser point accupunture for her pain? And is it a good idea? Tyvm.

      • Cold laser treatments can be very effective for arthritis, Dana. I don’t know of anyone in RI, but you could probably call around. A lot of clinics offer it now.

  6. Thank you, Marg. I’m glad you found the information useful.

    Chester’s Mom, I would talk to your vet about getting a few more days worth of pain medication if you think your little guy is still sore. There are lots of options for pain control that are much safer than aspirin. I use buprenorphine or tramadol a lot for my patients but there are many equally effective options. Your veterinarian should be able to help you choose one that is appropriate for your cat. I’m glad you saw this article before you gave the aspirin 🙂

  7. This info was good to know. I have 6 mth old that was just declawed. His pain medication has run out but he is favoring one paw still, I was almost going to try an asprin to relieve some of his discomfort.
    What is recommended when you just want him to have a ‘lil’ something to curb the pain?

    Thank you
    Chesters Mom

  8. That was a great article. I sure agree that it is really hard to tell if a cat is in a lot of pain. Thanks for all that great information.

  9. Thank you, Leslie and Max. I’m glad you liked the article.

    I find it disturbing that a lot of veterinarians are not adequately looking for and addressing pain, especially in older cats where arthritis and other painful degenerative diseases are common. I’m glad to hear your vet does, Leslie 🙂

    • Lorie, I agree completely. It seems that a lot of veterinarians just don’t want to do the research when it comes to pain control for cats.

  10. Thanks, Leslie. For me, how a vet approaches pain management is one of the crucial factors in evaluating whether he or she is the right vet for my cats (and of course, you are fortunate to have one of the very best as your vet!).

  11. Good article, Dr. Huston and Ingrid – thanks for sharing. When I met my vet in 2003, I remember that one of the things he spoke to me about was the importance of managing pains in cats.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *