How to Measure Your Cat’s Pain: A Pain Scoring Guide
Many cats like to keep their humans guessing when it comes to what they want and needs. We think they want belly scratches, only to find they just want a quick pat behind the ears. They appear to be hankering for a treat but turn their finicky noses up when we give in. We order them fluffy beds, which they ignore in favour of the shipping box.
The complexities of cats are one of the reasons we love them. But this lack of straightforward communication can sometimes prevent us from accurately assessing their physical needs. Certain cat behaviour may seem like one concern, only to be masking another.
Cats and Pain: Signs to Look For
Signs of cat pain can be easy to miss.
Many pet parents realize a lack of grooming can be a sign of pain, as a kitty avoids the stretching and contortion that often accompany grooming. However, it may not be as clear that overgrooming can also be a sign of discomfort.
Grooming is sometimes used as a self-comfort and may be akin to rubbing an area, replacing the pain sensation with the more pleasant massage associated with grooming. Overgrooming may be a sign of pain, particularly when the cat’s interest is always in a similar spot. For instance, overgrooming around the base of the tail can indicate lower back pain. Overgrooming the knees may similarly indicate joint pain or arthritis.
Cats generally prefer to hide their weaknesses from the rest of the world, so hiding can also be a sign of pain for cats. If a social kitty suddenly seems to be retreating under the bed or into a closet more frequently, that may signal illness and discomfort.
Changes in personality can also indicate pain. Even a usually sweet cat may lash out unexpectedly when petted over a painful spot. There are several other behavioural changes that may indicate pain in your kitty. Changes from normal behaviour are often your first sign your kitty is uncomfortable and a trip to your veterinarian is in order.
Veterinary Pain Assessments and Scales
Many signs of cat pain are even harder to pinpoint, including small changes incat body language. It can even be difficult for veterinarians to assess, and signs sometimes change from day to day as pain levels fluctuate. There may not be a single obvious sign of pain, such as a limping or difficulty rising. Rather, one might observe a subtle combination of body signs and postures that indicate pain for your feline friend.
These subtle signs have been compiled into pain scales to help veterinarians and owners detect pain in kitties, as well as more objectively monitor changes in pain over time during treatment.
The Colorado State University Pain Scale relies on posture and reactions to touch, particularly around a known injury or wound. It outlines progressive signs of discomfort and pain scored from 0 to 4 and summarized as follows:
0 – Comfortable, curious about surroundings, minimal body tension, not bothered by touching
1 – Changes in normal routine, less interested in surroundings, mild body tension, a possible reaction to petting
2 – Seeks solitude, may be curled or hunched with legs under the body, eyes may be squinting or closed, may become aggressive if painful area is touched, mild to moderate body tension
3 – Growling or hissing, particularly if touched, trying to escape if painful area is touched, moderate body tension
4 – Lies flat out, may be unaware of surroundings, may be rigid to avoid any pain-causing movement, moderate to severe body tension
Particularly helpful are the body language signs that may develop at the lower end of the scale where the pain is often less obvious. These changes may include squinting (instead of alert wide eyes), holding ears flat or back, and mild changes to the muzzle such as pulling whiskers back or holding the jaw taut. Additionally, a hunched posture with legs tucked under and tail wrapped tightly around the body may indicate pain, especially when present with the facial indications noted..
The key to helping your feline friend live as pain-free as possible is to be observant of changes. Seemingly small shifts can indicate possible health and comfort concerns in kitties. If you suspect your cat is showing even subtle signs of pain, have her assessed by your veterinarian. There are often medications, supplements or therapies that can help if pet parents are vigilant and proactive with issues that cats, by nature, are trying to hide.
By Dr. Stacey Hunvald
- Thiago Ferreira