What’s Going on with Fluffy? A change in your cat’s behavior can signal pain

By Julie Grace

If you have ever experienced an illness, you may remember how you felt. Everything from your energy level to your attitude was out of sorts. Like us, animals exhibit mood changes when they suffer from injury, illness, or chronic disease. Unlike us, they lack the ability to verbalize how they feel. As pet owners, we need to be aware of behavioral changes as important signals of our pet’s health. I spent some time with Our Companions Sanctuary Feline Behavior Manager Karen Aseltine to discuss the important connection between pain and behavioral changes in cats.

Unless there has been a traumatic event, such as moving to a new home, a death in the family, or a physical injury to your cat, their temperament does not typically change overnight. Any sudden change in behavior can be an indication that your cat is in pain or experiencing a health problem, and a discussion with your veterinarian is warranted. Keep in mind that in order to appear less vulnerable, instinctively, your cat may try to hide signs of discomfort or illness, so the changes in some cases might be subtle.

While every cat and situation are unique, there are a number of behavior changes that can occur when they experience pain. These include:

Sensitivity or vocalization in response to being petted or touched. If your pet hisses, howls, or pulls away when you try petting or touching them, it could be that they are guarding against being touched because they are in pain.

Decreased appetite or lack of interest in food. This can include a change in preference for soft foods over hard foods or vice-versa.

Withdrawal or hiding. Both of these responses are instinctual and help cats conserve energy as well as feel safe.

Reduced movement or mobility, or a hesitation to climb or jump. Just like a human with a sprained ankle or a pulled muscle, cats avoid movements of muscles and joints that are painful due to injury or disease.

Changes in grooming patterns. A cat may under-groom themselves if they are experiencing spinal pain, since their condition makes bending difficult. This behavior can bring about a duller coat, matted fur and dandruff. A cat who over-grooms may be reacting to pain or irritation in a specific area of the body. This behavior can lead to hair loss and skin sores.

Changes in defecation and urination habits, including frequency and location. When in pain, a cat may not be capable of getting to their litter box in time or even access it once they are there, which may lead them to eliminate outside the box.

Temperament changes. When in pain, generally cats are more irritable, causing them to act more aggressively than normal. Even gently petting a resting cat can trigger a negative reaction if they are experiencing pain.

Nighttime vocalizations or wake-up calls to their guardian. If a cat who typically sleeps through the night suddenly exhibits this new behavior, it may be signaling a problem.

One extremely common source of pain for cats is feline osteoarthritis. Like the condition that affects humans, it is a degenerative joint disease that produces low-grade inflammation, resulting in varying degrees of pain and swelling of the joints and reduced range of motion. In cats, it is common for multiple joints to be affected.

According to research from global animal health company Zoetis, more than 90% of cats older than 12 years of age show evidence of osteoarthritis, though cats as young as two years old have been diagnosed. For a variety of reasons, the clinical signs of the disease may go unnoticed by cat owners and may be under-diagnosed by veterinary professionals.

Often cats behave differently in a clinical environment, such as a veterinarian’s office, due to uncertainty, fear, or anxiety. This means that the behavioral changes you may have noticed at home may be less apparent in the clinical setting. Remember that a cat’s instinct when under stress is to mask any signs of vulnerability or weakness. Any details you can provide about at-home behaviors will help your veterinarian make a more informed health evaluation. Capturing videos of your cat, for example, walking up and down stairs, jumping off furniture, or getting up to a standing position after resting, can assist with a diagnosis.

The good news is, with proper diagnosis, there are many ways to manage your cat’s pain. In addition to medication, your cat’s veterinarian may recommend weight loss, acupuncture, physical rehabilitation, homeopathy, or chiropractic care. Additionally, if mobility issues are a concern, environmental additions such as stairs or ramps, heated beds, low-sided litter boxes, and other adjustments for difficult-to-reach areas can make your home more accommodating to your cat’s condition.

Attending to the special needs of your feline companion as they age or acquire manageable health conditions is part of being a responsible and loving pet guardian. It begins with being mindful of their everyday disposition. You know your pet’s habits far better than anyone else. By more clearly understanding the connection between pain and behavior, you can more readily identify problems and respond quickly when your pet needs you most.