Categories: hiding pain

Cat facial expressions: pain and discomfort

The concept of cat facial expressions is interesting. A domestic cat’s facial expressions are far from obvious. Some people might argue that cats don’t have facial expressions for certain emotions. In a 2014 study it was concluded that “Observers had difficulty in identifying pain-free from painful cats”. However facial expressions do exist and they can be subtle. For anger and fear, for instance, body language plays a big role.

This kitten with a head mange infestation (feline scabies) shows us the expression that a cat makes when she is in extreme, permanent discomfort. Head mange is caused by the head mite. It causes intense itchiness about the head and neck. There are thick yellow to grey crusts around the face and the edge of the ears as shown in the pictures of this dear kitten.

The severe itching is caused by female mites burrowing into the skin to lay eggs. The eggs hatch in 5-10 days. It is very contagious and people can be infested.

The interesting aspect of this medical case is the strained, tense expression of the kitten suffering from this nasty infestation.

Her eye’s are partly closed. Her mouth is downturned. The expression is pained and tense. Cats tolerate pain and discomfort well. We don’t know how they feel pain. They probably feel pain as humans do but are able to tolerate it more stoically and therefore hide it. Rather than complain like humans, domestic cats find a quiet place to hide and sometimes kill time by snoozing. They become passive or lethargic. Or if the cat is suffering from chronic orthopaedic injuries it can lead to a decrease in the cat’s tolerance of being handled. It might cause the onset of aggression but in general if the pain is chronic I believe that cats retire into themselves and suffer it quietly.

In the ‘after’ picture, having been treated, the kitten’s face loosens up. It is more relaxed and open. The eyes are wide. The mouth is more relaxed and less downturned. In this instance the biggest change is in the eyes; from tense, angled slits to oval and open. It is very nice to see this adorable kitten free of pain. I can feel the relief.

For aficionados of cat emotions and cat care these photographs help us understand how to assess whether our cat is in discomfort or pain.

On a personal note, this kitten’s expression reminds me of my late female cat who died of kidney disease. Looking back I can see that she was is long term discomfort and it showed in her facial expression.

My former tuxedo female cat in discomfort suffering from chronic ill-health due to old age.

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Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 71-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I have a girlfriend, Michelle. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare.

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  • Very good piece Michael, a really helpful intro to emotional expression. I wonder if it is only we humans who moan and grizzle about pain? Both prey and predator can appear hugely stoic. I do wonder if stoicism is an essential to survival?

    • Certainly humans seem to tolerate pain less well than animals and certainly cats. Some people use pain to get sympathy. The victim culture. This is turning it on its head.

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