Aches, Pain and Cats

Updated: Jul 31, 2020

Judging pain in cats is a difficult job. Hugo takes a look at why it’s so hard, and what tools veterinarians can use.

How do you tell if your cats’ in pain? It can be very hard to tell, and even veterinarians can have difficulty assessing pain in moggies, and it’s an issue that veterinarians are struggling to find an answer to.

In humans pain is often defined medically as “a unique and subjective perception that produces emotion”, and it is this definition that is at the heart of the issue.

Pain is both ‘unique’ and ‘subjective’ to each individual, so the challenge becomes finding how pain affects each individual, and tailoring treatment to suit.

And here we find the problem: Human-Cat communication. Despite our best efforts most humans just don’t seem to understand what we are telling you!

Veterinarians, trying to discover the site and extent of pain in cats faces a similar issue to that of paediatrician treating babies - how do we judge pain when that pain cannot be described to us by the patient?

Especially given that other factors such as fear, memory, stress and previous experience can all affect pain perception and measurement.

Cute kitten staring into the camera
Each cat is an individual, and each cats' own experience and memory contributes to the way they process pain

And it’s a hugely important issue for cats.

Pain causes stress responses in cats including immune suppression, loss of appetite, reduced bowel and bladder movements and even intestinal obstruction.

Additionally, after surgical procedures, pain delays wound healing, increases hospitalisation time, and increases the chances of morbidity.

So what are veterinarians doing to try and address this issue?

White long-hair cat is patted by it's owner while a vet bandages its front paw
Veterinarians are trying to find the best ways to measure pain in cats - not an easy thing to do!

In a recent article for the British Small Animal Veterinary Association (BSAVA) magazine Dr Valentina Campoli and Dr Enzo Verroato reviewed a long list of attempts by veterinarians to produce a consistent and validated pain scale to be used on cats.

However, their review makes sorry reading for us cats. They cover Pain Scoring Systems including Visual Analogue Scales (VAS), Numerical Rating Scales (NRS), Simple Descriptive Scales (SDS) and Dynamic Interactive Visual Analogue Scales (DIVAS), however, while they find that different scales work well in different situations, they don’t find that there is a single validated scale that allows vets to objectively rate pain in cats.

This brings us back to the start. Without an objective scale or a means to communicate, how do we judge pain levels in cats.

It seems it is still in the hands of the veterinarian, and you the owner!

Levels of pain in cats can only be judged by comparing “normal” cat behaviour with any “abnormal” behaviours they are showing. To do this, veterinarians require a complete picture of the way your cat lives and behaves.

With each of my cat brothers and sisters being individuals, with different experiences, memories and stress points, the more information you can provide to your vet, the more accurate a diagnosis can be made.

Standing, contented ginger cat is being patted on the head
Knowing your cat and noticing when it's behaviour changes is the best gauge of when something is wrong

The better your vet knows your cat, the better your vet will understand the issues they’re facing. A good way to encourage this relationship is through regular annual check-ups, which can identify issues earlier, and give your vet a better picture of what is “normal” and “abnormal” behaviour for your cat.

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