Three Ways To Tell Your Cat Is in Pain

We need to have a method which helps us to know whether our cat is in pain or not. This is because we know that cats do not show that they are in pain. This is common knowledge. We need to have a handle on this problem because all good cat caretakers do not want their cat to be in any sort of pain. I will include discomfort. Discomfort is low-level pain.

Cat pain recognition

For me the expression in the left hand photo indicates a tightness which could be due to pain, compared to the more relaxed facial expression on the right.

This article is a follow-up to Jo Singer’s article on the same subject. I just felt that I needed to discuss it myself having thought about it.

These are two (perhaps three) ways to tell that your cat is in pain:


If your cat has been diagnosed by a veterinarian as being ill from any illness then make a presumption that your cat is at least in discomfort and maybe feeling pain. How can I make this presumption? I believe it is quite easy to make this presumption because we know, as people, that illness causes, at the least, discomfort and, at the worst, acute pain, dependent upon the sort of illness that one is suffering from. With injuries, right away we can presume that a cat feels pain and there will be observable indications such as growling, hissing and flinching etc..The underlying hidden illnesses are harder to assess with respect to pain….

Observe Behavioral Change

Be observant. One of the best signals that your cat is paying is that her behaviour will change. This method of assessing whether your cat is in pain is based upon having a knowledge of your cat’s normal behaviour over, preferably, a long period of time. This method requires that the cat caretaker is observant and has a close relationship with their cat. A change in a cat’s behaviour is probably the best indicator a cat is in pain but, of course, it does depend on the kind of change in behaviour that one is observing and the illness.

Personal experience tells me that when a cat is in discomfort or feels pain, he or she will slow down and be passive. The word that veterinarians constantly use is “lethargic”.

Another obvious change in behaviour is a lack of appetite. When people are ill they lose their appetite. People are human animals and therefore it is a simple process to extrapolate how we feel and behave when we are ill to assessing how a cat feels and behaves when they are ill.

When we are really ill we go to bed and we stay there until we are well again. When a cat is really ill, she finds a quiet place, perhaps a cool place if she has a fever, lies down and appears to snooze. That is reminiscent of the sort of things that we do when we are really ill.

Other changes in behaviour that can be attributed to discomfort and pain in a cat are as follows:

  • Self grooming less often
  • Wishing to be left alone
  • Purring more often (purring is not only a sign of contentment but an indication that a cat requests our friendship)
  • Licking a particular area. Animals lick an area that is painful to alleviate the pain.
  • Irritability and crankiness.
  • Hiding and being less sociable or less interactive with her caretaker

I want stop there because I want this page to be very short and easy to read. I want it to be very focused on these two things (a) a presumption of feeling pain when a cat is ill (b) an observable change in behaviour, which must be based upon a knowledge of normal behaviour.

The second of those two is the best but there is a weakness, which is that the cat’s caretaker must be a good caretaker and must know their cat very well. I will make a guess and say that a lot of cat owners are either not observant enough or not sufficiently connected enough with their cat to observe subtle changes in behaviour.

Being able to assess whether one’s cat is in pain is a good example of why it is important to be a good cat owner. I do not know how many cat owners will be able to spot slight changes in their cat’s behaviour but I suspect that it is no more than 50% and quite possibly quite a lot lower than that.

The answer is that all cat owners should, from the outset, be observant of their cat and understand her routines, likes and dislikes and normal behaviour.

Facial Expression

This is a bit of an afterthought because I had not intended to put a third way of assessing pain in your cat into this article. However it occurred to me that cats do make facial expressions.  This does require very good observation and a very good knowledge of one’s cat.  However, once again, in line with human behaviour, cats can show that they are in discomfort or in pain through an altered facial expression.  The picture heading this page is an example, I believe, and it is painful for me show it because she was my cat.

Associated: An earlier article on the same subject.

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Three Ways To Tell Your Cat Is in Pain — 14 Comments

  1. A very informative article Michael. Yes a cat has a sort of frown when in discomfort but the main telling point for me is the hiding away from your attention, cats just don’t want you to know when they are in pain, they hide it for as long as they can.
    We were relieved when our very old cat Ebony was deciding to leave us that she wasn’t in pain, we watched her closely in readiness to make the decision for her, but she didn’t hide away at all. In fact she chose to leave us minutes after Babz came from work, I do think that was her being the wonderful little soul she always was, a no fuss get on with it sort of cat.
    Still missing her almost 7 years later.

    • I think the description of the expression a cat makes – “frown” is a good one for a cat in pain or discomfort. Where is my time to die I would love to do it like Ebony!

  2. Wise words, well researched. The thought of our cats being in pain is awful, but it’s right that by knowing them so well and keeping a watch over them we should have an idea when all is not well, it’s a sort of instinct isn’t it, there’s just something subtly different but it hits you in the eye when they are not well

    • I think you are right, Barbara, that the better we know our cats more instinctively we understand whether something is wrong or not and we do that by picking up subtle changes in behaviour. As it happens, everything on the page came straight out of my head! It had to because even using the best book on cat health that one can buy there is no reference in the index to how a person knows if a cat is feeling pain. There are articles on the Internet about it but they are rather vague and I thought I would try and approach the matter from a different angle.

  3. Than I am very impressed Michael, and apologise for thinking you’d researched for this article. I did say they were wise words and I am proved correct 🙂

  4. Working as a tech for so many years , unfortunately, seeing cats in pain was something I had to deal with on a daily basis. Michael you are right on in this article. It really is about knowing your cat. Veterinarians often feel that cat pain is one of the more difficult areas of veterinary medicine and they rely a great deal on what the owner has witnessed in their cats behavior. I know personally, I look for pain in their eyes, they tend to squint with a pain that is reoccurring. When cats have stomach pain or mouth pain they have been known to walk backwards trying to ‘get away from it’. Also , hovering over a water bowl can be a sign of or heartburn or tummy ache.
    I know of a great vet and her name is Doc Truli, she wrote a page on this subject and she actually posted some photographs on her site that show what a cat looks like in pain. It’s not graphic, but so informative. Here is the link…

    • Thanks Jennifer. I was just basing this on my experience really and I wanted to simplify the process and provide some general guidelines. Apparently, as well, cats can use head pressing (pressing their head against an object) to ease the pain. All in all, though, it is ultimately about a change in behaviour or a cat doing things which looks different and are perhaps somewhat strange perhaps, which is based upon observation ultimately.

      • Michael, your vet must love you and your cats too. 🙂 You pay attention, that is so important. Your observations are right on, I’m totally impressed and this article could be used as a tool for many cat parents.

        • Thanks Jennifer. I can be a little bit too talkative with my vet. I can be a bit too forceful and I do not mean to be. It is because I used to be a solicitor for quite a few years before I retired and that toxic job left me different to the way I was before I started it 😉 I used to be a mild mannered, quiet sort and I ended up….. well, it is quite hard to describe how I ended up! And of course I know quite a bit about cats having run the site for about seven years non-stop. My vet might consider me to be a pain in the backside.

  5. A solicitor? Isn’t that a lawyer? If so we have more in common than I thought. I am a legal assistant. The legal field is what I left my tech job for many years ago. I had married an attorney and we ran a Law Office for many years. I no longer work as a legal assistant because of my photography and I am no longer married to the attorney either. LOL 🙂

  6. its a small world jennifer. Its amazing as such dedicated cat carers how you always known when ur pets or children are in pain and not doing so well you always know when something is not right. I think intuition and sensing comes alot into it. Love this article as i do every article as you really use common sense and i agree totally with you.

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