How to Tell If Your Cat Is in Pain, According to a Panel of Cat Experts

A global panel of feline medical specialists reached the first broad consensus on 25 behaviors that indicate your cat is in pain.

As anyone who has ever owned a cat will tell you, trying to get an accurate gauge on what's going through your feline's head is next to impossible. Most of the time, the inability to understand your cat's erratic behavior only results in relatively minor annoyances, but sometimes this behavior can point to a more significant underlying health problem.

In that case figuring out how to decipher your cat's behavior could be a matter of life and death for your furry friend, which is why a panel of 19 cat experts from seven countries came together to compile the first broad consensus of behavioral signs that indicate your cat is in pain.

The study, published on Wednesday in PLOS One, compiles 25 behavioral signs that might indicate your cat is in pain. It is part of a wider initiative spearheaded by England's University of Lincoln to understand cat pain in an effort to promote faster diagnoses of illness and other medical problems in felines.

"Both owners and veterinarians are clearly able to recognize many behavioral changes in cats which relate to pain," Daniel Mills, a Professor of Veterinary Behavioral Medicine at the University of Lincoln and a co-author of the study, said in a statement. "However, owners may not always recognize the clinical relevance of what they see. We hope that having an agreed list of more objective criteria, which relates to specific signs of pain, could improve the ability of both owners and vets to recognize it."

The study, which was supported by the UK cat charity Feline Friends, used a process of behavior analysis to categorize a number of different feline behaviors as either sufficient or necessary for pain assessment in cats. Sufficient behavior would indicate that the cat was in pain, whereas necessary signs must be present in cats to indicate they are in pain.

At the end of their analysis, the researchers were able to identify 25 sufficient behaviors that could indicate your cat is in pain, although they found no necessary behaviors. Among the sufficient behaviors to indicate your cat may be in pain (the full list is below) were: absence of grooming, a hunched-up posture, the avoidance of bright areas (which tends to indicate eye trouble), and a change in feeding behavior.

"Throughout the study, we consulted a variety of international experts so that we could be sure the signs were universal indicators of pain," said Mills. "By creating this core set of signs, we lay the foundation for future studies into the early detection of pain in cats, using scales which are crucially based on natural, non-invasive, observations."

Image: Mills et al.

As a part of the University of Lincoln's larger understanding cat pain initiative, this study was considered to be a crucial first step in understanding how cats express pain in using their face.

"Cats are notorious for not showing that they are in pain, and the more that we can find out what the signals are, then the sooner we can get them to the vets for diagnosis and treatment," Caroline Fawcett, Chairman of Feline Friends, said in a statement. "There is a long way still to go before the more subtle signs can be identified, but we are really excited about progress to date. The team at Lincoln is highlighting its dedication to cat welfare by tackling this extremely difficult project."