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Just like we can, cats can experience pain and this can quickly become a welfare concern if not properly controlled. Particularly in cases of cats affected by long-term conditions, levels of pain can constantly vary, and pain relief may need to be altered over time. It is important, as an owner, to be able to recognise when your cat is as happy and comfortable as they should be.
What is pain?
The widely used definition of pain is ‘an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience, associated with actual or potential tissue damage’. This means that pain is not just what you feel, but also how this makes you feel. It generally has a protective function, but can lead to additional stress and suffering if not properly controlled.
There are different types of pain, all with different underlying causes. Pain can broadly be placed into two categories:
This happens when a potentially harmful stimulus (for example, cutting, crushing or burning) is applied to the body, and acts to protect the animal. Its severity will be proportional to the stimulus, i.e. the worse the damage, the more painful it will be. Cats may experience this kind of pain after surgery, due to injury, or secondary to other conditions like pancreatitis or urinary obstruction.
This means the pain is persistent and long lasting. A good example of this would be arthritis (joint inflammation), which often affects animals for a number of years. It is also important to note that even with chronic conditions, animals can experience acute flare-ups of pain, also known as breakthrough pain.
What are the signs?
While our pets can’t directly tell us when they’re in pain, there are signs that we can look out for that might suggest that they are. We rely mostly on behavioural changes as a good indicator of pain. These may be signs that you’ve seen your cat experience previously if they have already seen a vet about pain management.
- Limping and mobility changes
- Reduced appetite
- Lethargy and depression
- Hiding away
- Increased grooming
Can we use pain scoring?
Obviously, cats cannot tell us the degree of pain they’re feeling. So there are other methods we use to determine how painful they are – “pain scores”.
Feline Grimace Pain Scale
In 2019, the University of Montreal developed a way to evaluate the levels of acute pain a cat is experiencing, and whether a cat may need pain relief. It uses changes in facial expression to help determine this – ear position, muzzle tension, whisker changes, orbital tightening (squinting) and head position are all scored.
This scale is certainly being used more and more in veterinary practices to monitor post-operative pain. It can also be used by owners at home, and can be really useful if you want to monitor your cat after surgery or an injury. Remember, this cannot be used to monitor levels of pain for chronic conditions like arthritis.
Pain scoring for chronic pain
There have been several pain scores developed for chronic pain in cats: Pain scales for use in cats with chronic pain | WSAVA
What can be done?
In cases of acute pain, particularly after surgery, it is important to monitor your cat closely. The majority will be comfortable with the medication already prescribed by your vet, but no two animals are the same! Talk to your vet if you think your cat is not comfortable.
With chronic conditions, if you are concerned that your cat is not managing as well as they have been previously, do make an appointment with your vet. Your vet may want to try different medicines and dosages, and may require you to book in for regular check-ups. Sometimes, despite every effort, it can be really difficult to keep pain under control. In cases of long-term uncontrollable pain, your vet may also discuss the option of euthanasia. NEVER give your cat pain killers intended for humans. Common drugs that we use like paracetamol and ibuprofen can be toxic to cats. Work with your vet to find the best pain management plan.