How You Can Recognise Pain in Cats This article is verified by a vet

cat in pain at the vets

Cats can suffer from pain just as severe as us humans. The problem is simply that our pets often hide this from us. But without treatment, chronic pain can soon develop, therefore it is important to pay attention to changes in your cat’s behaviour in order to start with the right pain treatment at an early stage.

What causes pain for my cat?

Pain (also called algesia) is a complex sensory perception. It is triggered by external and internal stimuli and first emerges in the cat’s brain:

The peripheral nervous system is made up of individual nerves and nerve endings (receptors). The latter are also known as pain receptors (nociceptors). They are distributed in all organs sensitive to pain, such as the skin or gastrointestinal tract. Whether a stimulus acts from the outside or inside, the respective pain receptors are stimulated above a certain threshold. For instance, external stimuli can be mechanical injuries. In contrast, inflammations or other underlying diseases can stimulate the internal pain receptors.

Pain fibres then transmit this stimulus to the central nervous system, i.e. the spinal cord and brain. The pain is then perceived for the first time in the cerebral cortex.

Pain memory

If a cat is constantly or repeatedly suffering from severe pain, this can structurally and functionally change its brain, because the nerve structures specialising in pain gradually react more intensively. Pain memory emerges. The nervous system thereupon reacts much more strongly to a stimulus that previously only caused mild pain.

Types of pain

Not all types of pain are the same, therefore there are very different categories in human and animal medicine. Along with the location of the pain and its type, the temporal occurrence is very important in choosing the right treatment:

  • Acute pain emerges within a few seconds as an alarm signal to sudden stimuli. If the cause is dealt with, this type of pain will disappear after a few hours our days. For instance, if a cat is strongly bitten by another cat during a fight.
  • In contrast, chronic pain persists for more than six months or recurs over a long period of time. Treatment is often complicated by the pain emerging independently of underlying diseases and having lost its signal effect. For example: joint diseases like arthrosis (joint wear).

How does pain impact upon cats?

If your cat is suffering from acute pain, it usually shows this by making noise. Is your cat suddenly limping? Are its ears alert and it is pulling its tail in? These are also clear signs of sudden pain.

In contrast, it’s more difficult to recognise chronic pain in cats, because unlike dogs, they hide their suffering for longer in order to show no weakness faced with enemy cats or other animals. Hence, it’s very important for cat owners to pay attention to the following changes in behaviour:

  • State of anxiety
  • Severe aggression
  • Increased withdrawal
  • Reduced appetite
  • Sensitivity to touch
  • Signs of exhaustion like tiredness and unwillingness to exercise
scared cat with flattened ears © Evdoha /

How can chronic pain be treated in cats?

Pain massively reduces quality of life, therefore all cats sensitive to pain should have the right to good pain treatment. It’s incredibly important to intervene as early as possible. This is the most effective way to prevent the development of a treatment-resistant pain memory.

Along with conservative or operative treatment of the cause of pain, support measures are also used as part of pain treatment, which are to reduce the pain symptoms. These include in particular the following measures that alleviate pain:

  • Oral administration of painkillers (analgesics): these include potent opioids (for example, buprenorphine, fentanyl or tramadol), less potent non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs, such as carprofen or meloxicam) or non-opioid analgesics like metamizol.
  • Local anaesthetics to attenuate local pain with an injection.
  • Physiotherapy to relieve painful tension.
  • Treatment-resistant orthopaedic diseases (e.g. arthrosis) can be alleviated with pain treatment.

Preventing pain during operations

Vets use painkillers preventively before every operation in order to alleviate the cat’s pain during and after the procedure. In addition, local anaesthetics can be used to numb a local area. If your cat continues to express pain after the operation, you can give it suitable pain relief following discussion with your vet.


Pain in cats can be treated well nowadays. It is just important to recognise the signs at an early stage and quickly start a suitable pain treatment. In this way, you can be sure that the pain won’t become chronic and that your cat will always have a good quality of life.

You can find more articles on feline wellbeing in our section cat health and grooming.

Franziska G., Veterinarian
Profilbild von Tierärztin Franziska Gütgeman mit Hund

At the Justus-Liebig-University of Giessen I was extensively trained as a veterinarian and was able to gain experience in various fields such as small animal, large animal and exotic animal medicine as well as pharmacology, pathology and food hygiene. Since then, I have been working not only as a veterinary author, but also on my scientifically driven dissertation. My goal is to better protect animals from pathogenic bacterial organisms in the future. Besides my veterinary knowledge, I also share my own experiences as a happy dog owner and can thus understand and enlighten fears and problems as well as other important questions about animal health.

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