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7 Commonly Neglected Causes of Pain in Cats

By Dr. Patty Khuly


Ever wonder why your cat is acting like such an angel? Perhaps she’s not pestering you as much around feeding time. Or no longer jumps up on the kitchen counter quite as often as he once did. Believe it or not, what you may perceive as “good” cat behavior could be evidence of something quite sinister.

Cats are amazing creatures for a long list of reasons. As a veterinarian, however, I can’t help but marvel most over how well they hide any evidence of pain or discomfort. They’re so skilled at occulting any obvious signs of distress that we humans are often shocked when cats seem to take ill so “suddenly.”

But that doesn’t mean pain is impossible to identify in cats. Not when you know the specific signs to look for. And part of that means knowing which disorders tend to be accompanied by nearly imperceptible signs of pain.

With that in mind, here are seven painful conditions my feline-owning clients often overlook:

#1 Ingrown Claws

This happens when especially curly claws don’t get trimmed. This is most common in older cats whose claws tend to grow thicker and longer due to their more limited exercise.

Look for: limping, licking paws, and walking around less, especially on harder surfaces

#2 Feline Idiopathic Cystitis

This inflammatory bladder disease is considered highly painful. Thankfully, many cats do demonstrate their discomfort, usually by urinating about the house (often while straining). When they don’t…

Look for: Going in and out of the litterbox more often than usual and urinating in small volumes (sometimes you can tell, depending on the kind of litter you use)

#3 Periodontal Disease

Afflicted cats will typically show no signs of having painful teeth and gums. Even when cavity-like lesions (feline resorptive lesions) painfully expose the pulp of their teeth, cats will act as if nothing’s wrong.

Look for: Reduction in appetite, a messy feeding area (they often move their head erratically as they painfully ingest their food), eating with their head to one side, taking longer to eat than usual, regurgitating dry food (because they’re not chewing it), and exhibiting a preference for one kind of food over another (not necessarily wet over dry)

#4 Stomatitis

This inflammatory condition of the mouth is kind of like periodontal disease, only more sudden and more painful. But still, we tend to overlook it.

Look for: Drooling, staring at the food bowl as if hungry but unwilling to eat, head shaking, aless groomed appearance (most won’t groom as much), and sometimes even yowling when eating

#5 Osteoarthritis

Some researchers have suggested that the incidence of osteoarthritis in cats is higher than in dogs. Which will probably come as a surprise to those of you who had no idea cats could even get arthritis.

Look for: Decreased overall activity, less jumping (especially on higher surfaces), and, only rarely, limping

#6 Otitis

Ear pain happens when chronic skin disease of the external ear canal leads to infection and ulceration we call otitis. One or both ears may be affected.

Look for: Head shaking, scabs from scratching around the head and face, holding the head to one side, hair loss around the ears

#7 Ocular disease

Ever seen your cat squint at you with one eye? If so, you can be pretty sure she wasn’t trying to be cute. More than likely she was experiencing some degree of ocular discomfort. Corneal ulceration, where the cornea is injured, is perhaps the most severely painful, but cats suffer more commonly from uncomfortable viral infections of the tissues surrounding the eyes (conjunctivitis). This can occur in one of both eyes.

Look for: Squinting, ocular discharge, weepy eyes, red or swollen eyes or lids

Unfortunately, we don’t have much to offer by way of pain control in cats. While we’re always on the lookout for new methods, cats are still way behind dogs when it comes to pain control. If your cats have been diagnosed with any of the above conditions, definitely ask your veterinarian for progressive pain control measures.

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