Cats are extremely good at hiding pain, so it is often not easy to tell if they are suffering. As cats get older, their behaviour will naturally change, but it is important to differentiate signs of aging from signs of pain. We expect that older cats will decrease wild playful activities and prefer to sleep longer in a warm spot or walk leisurely around, but there are specific signs that could indicate pain instead of normal decreased levels of activity. Osteoarthritis is a type of joint disease that affects almost all cats as they grow older and can be associated with severe pain.

Cats are extremely good at grooming themselves and are normally very willing and capable of keeping themselves clean. They spend a large amount of their waking hours cleaning their bodies. One of the first signs of pain, especially pain affecting their spines and joints is a decrease in grooming habits, which will present itself as dirty and matted areas on the body. Grooming requires a lot of twisting and turning, and if these motions become uncomfortable, cats will start avoiding the areas that they cannot comfortably reach, most often the rear parts of the body. All cats like to be clean, so a constantly dirty cat is never normal.

Another noticeable behaviour is the use of the litter box. If your cat has been very good at using their litter box, but suddenly starts eliminating next to it or in another place entirely, it might be due to pain. The pain could be from climbing in and out of the box, or from the position the use of the box requires. Cats with pain might also begin urinating in a standing position instead of squatting down. Older cats can also easily become constipated, so very hard and infrequent stool can be a sign of pain.

Normally cats are good jumpers and climbers and are generally happy to jump and sleep on furniture and counters. A lack or pronounced decrease of jumping can be a sign of pain. This could also mean they prefer to lie longer in one place or lie down or get up more slowly. Cats in pain might struggle to find a comfortable sleeping position and might seek a warm, sunny spot or sleep on the floor. Normally friendly and cuddly cats can object to being picked up, petted on their backs, or touched in other locations and show their irritation to being handled. They can become aggressive. They might also start hiding more under furniture and lose interest in toys and other previously enjoyable activities. Sometimes there will be more obvious signs like constantly licking one spot of the body until a bald spot appears.

Osteoarthritis and many other painful conditions can’t generally be cured, but the pain can be managed with medications that will restore your cat’s quality of life. With the right medication your cat can become the playful and happy cat he once was again. But it is critical to consult a registered veterinary surgeon to get a correct diagnosis and to ensure that any medication given is suitable for cats as many human pain medications are lethal for cats.

Article by: Dr. Laura Wessman

KSPCA Volunteer

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