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Pain Recognition and Management in Cats

A Quick Quiz
But He Doesn't Act Like He's In Pain!
Why Treat Pain?
How Do I Tell If My Cat Is In Pain?
What Can Cause Pain In My Cat?
How Do We Relieve My Cat's Pain?
So Remember!

A Quick Quiz
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Samantha is an eight-year-old female. She isn't eating as much as usual and isn't playing with her toys like she typically does.

Tiger is a two-year-old male who just had a cyst surgically removed. The incision is fairly small, but he spends a lot of time sitting hunched over in his cage, and he hisses when people come too close to him.

Mocha is a 12-year-old male with abdominal cancer. He's eating and sleeping as much as usual, and he doesn't cry out or flinch when his tummy is touched.

Question: Which of these cats is in pain?

Answer: All of them. Samantha has an abscessed tooth, Tiger's incision is sore and Mocha's cancer is terribly painful.

But He Doesn't Act Like He's In Pain!
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Do you know when your cat is in pain? Unfortunately, there are several reasons why it can be very easy to miss signs that a cat is in pain.

First, cats hide pain. In fact, when it comes to concealing pain from disease or injury, most cats are capable of an Academy Award-winning performance! Unlike dogs and many other animals, cats may behave overall quite normally when they are in pain. Studies with hidden cameras have shown that some cats will act fine when people are around, but then show signs of pain - such as licking at a sore area or hunching over - when they are alone.

Why do cats hide pain? One big reason stems from their origins and their survival instincts in the wild. In the wild, a sick or injured animal is vulnerable to attack, so survival can depend on the animal's ability to act like everything is fine even when something is terribly wrong.

Second, cats don't exhibit signs of pain in the same way people or other animals do. Relatively quiet creatures, cats won't bark, whine, cry or otherwise vocalize when they're in pain. Because of this, veterinarians and cat owners alike have erroneously believed that cats don't feel pain like humans, or at least, that they don't feel it as much.

But we know now that cats do indeed suffer from pain nearly exactly the way we do, even though they may not show it in obvious ways.

So just because your cat isn't acting like she's in pain or isn't crying doesn't mean she's not in pain.

Why Treat Pain?
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Treating pain in cats can significantly speed their healing and recovery. Although cats might not show signs of distress, their pain can have immediate and long-term detrimental effects on their health.

Unmitigated or uncontrolled pain is a major biologic stressor and affects numerous aspects of physical health, including wound healing and resistance to infectious disease. Studies have shown that animals whose pain is prevented or controlled recover faster and better from surgery than animals whose pain is not properly treated. And we know that if sudden-onset pain, such as that experienced during surgery, is not managed properly and aggressively, it can lead to pain that can last for months or longer.

In addition, cats that have had surgery without proper pain management will be frightened and stressed during future veterinary visits. And that's not good for everyone involved!

Finally, it's the humane thing to do. Can you imagine having surgery of any kind and going home without pain medication? Or having a painful disease or condition, such as cancer or arthritis, and not taking anything for the pain? Our feline friends deserve to have their pain treated, just like we do.

How Do I Tell If My Cat Is In Pain?
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Determining if your cat is in pain is like playing detective: You must observe and evaluate all of the evidence presented to you. Remember, just because your cat isn't crying or showing any other overt signs of pain doesn't mean she's not hurting. Occasionally, cats will cry out in pain, but this is rare - most cats instead will suffer in silence.

First, if your cat has had a surgical procedure, or is suffering from an injury or disease that would be painful for you, assume that it's painful for your cat, too. Having a tooth pulled hurts! So does any incision or serious injury. And cancer and other diseases can cause tremendous pain.

Second, strap on your detective's hat and closely, critically observe your cat's behavior. Changes in a cat's behavior or normal routine often are the first signs of pain or illness. But those changes aren't always obvious. Often, especially early in the course of illness or if a cat is experiencing only mild to moderate pain, these differences can be quite subtle, and they may be the only signs that a cat exhibits.

So the better you know your cat's usual way of doing things, the more likely you are to pick up on cues that your cat may be hurting.

Here are some signs that your cat may be in pain:

  • Lack of grooming
  • Sleeping a lot and/or sleeping in only one position, especially if this is a change from weeks/months/years past.
  • Lack of interest in food, water or surrounding
  • Wanting to be left alone
  • Growling or hissing when stroked, touched or moved
  • Nonstop purring
  • Licking a particular area
  • Abnormal body positions, such as a hunched-back or head-in-the-corner stance
  • Restlessness
  • Change in food preferences, sleeping spots and/or litter box habits
  • General irritability or crankiness
  • Reluctance to jump to favorite spots, such as window sills and beds
  • Reduced social interactions with owners, other cats in home
  • Hiding or isolating oneself

If you notice any of these behaviors, tell your Cat Hospital of Chicago veterinarian.

What Can Cause Pain In My Cat?
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Pain generally is grouped into two categories: acute (sudden onset) and chronic (ongoing).

Acute pain usually is easy to recognize. Causes of acute pain can include:

  • Surgical trauma - even routine surgeries, such as spays, declaws and dentals with extractions cause considerable pain
  • Limb or other bone fractures
  • Urinary bladder obstruction - this extremely painful condition is more common in male cats than female cats
  • Feline lower urinary tract disorders not associated with obstruction - this occurs in both males and females
  • A blood clot that has passed out of the heart
  • An abscessed tooth
  • Blow-to-the-body traumas, such as being hit by a car
  • Corneal ulcers (ulcers involving the cornea or superficial part of the eye)
  • Kidney infections
  • Soft tissue inflammation from animal bite wounds
  • Acute pancreatitis

Chronic pain can be more difficult to recognize. Two of the most common causes of chronic pain that we see at Cat Hospital of Chicago are the pain that occurs secondary to arthritis (osteoarthritis and degenerative joint disease) and the pain associated with cancer. Other causes of chronic pain can include:

  • Trauma or surgery, such as a limb amputation or head surgery
  • Chronic pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)
  • Chronic wounds
  • Chronic interstitial cystitis (chronic feline lower urinary tract disease)

How Do We Relieve My Cat's Pain?
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Don't ever give cats human medication, such as aspirin or ibuprofen, without specific directions from your Cat Hospital of Chicago veterinarian. Cats metabolize (physically process) drugs differently than most other species, so human painkillers can be toxic to cats unless they are given in the proper dose and at the proper intervals. This is especially true for nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories medications, such as Advil (ibuprofen), which can be deadly for cats.

That said, your Cat Hospital of Chicago veterinarian can provide a number of medications, from pills to patches, to safely help your cat feel more comfortable. Multiple drugs may even be used to enhance the effects of each other.

In some extreme cases, drug therapy is not enough to result in a good quality of life for the cat. Additional treatment options that can be employed along with drug therapy to alleviate pain and improve quality of life include acupuncture, laser therapy (use of light energy to reduce pain and enhance healing), physical rehabilitation and massage therapy. Your Cat Hospital of Chicago veterinarian can talk to you about these options as well.

When treating cats following surgery - both for inpatients and outpatients - Cat Hospital veterinarians are very aggressive with pain management. We believe it is far better to prevent pain before it begins than to wait until it is present to treat it. When we expect that a cat will experience pain, we try to prevent its occurrence, or at least greatly decrease its severity, by administering pain medications preemptively. We always administer two to three different pain medications to all of our surgical patients pre-operatively.

So Remember!
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  • Cats most definitely feel pain. Research shows that cats suffer from pain in nearly exactly the same way we do.
  • Cats hide pain, and they're very good at it! Just because cats don't cry or otherwise show signs of being in pain doesn't mean they aren't hurting.
  • It's important to treat pain in cats for both their short- and long-term health, and because it's the humane thing to do.
  • If it would be painful for you, it's painful for your cat.
  • Behavioral changes resulting from pain can be extremely subtle, and it may not be obvious that they're signs of pain. Inform your Cat Hospital of Chicago veterinarian of any behavioral changes.
  • Pain can be caused by illness, disease, debilitating condition, injury, surgery, infection or inflammation, or be secondary to an illness or debilitating condition.
  • Never, ever, give human pain medication to your cat without consulting with your Cat Hospital of Chicago veterinarian.
  • A wide variety of medications and treatments, including alternative or non-drug therapies, are available to alleviate cats' pain and help them feel more comfortable.

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