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6 Behavioral Signs of Pain in Cats

Animal behaviorist Karen B. London breaks down the silent ways your kitty is trying to tell you they’re hurting.

by Karen B. London, PhD
May 9, 2022
Red cat with squinted eyes laying in a basket closeup

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Cats frequently hide their pain — histrionic they are not. Even though many signs are subtle, it’s possible to spot the behavioral indicators of pain in our feline friends. Some common hints that a cat is experiencing pain are changes in their behavior. Any change in behavior should be taken seriously, and even smaller changes may be important clues that a cat is in pain. 

1. Change in sleep habits and low energy

A change in sleeping habits could be a warning sign, as could loss of appetite, not drinking the same amount as before, or keeping their eyes closed a lot. Being less playful than usual, including acting disinterested in toys that usually elicit playful responses, can be additional behavioral signs of pain.

2. Vocalizing

Vocalizing more or in a way that is unusual for them such as crying, groaning, growling or hissing are also clues. Resisting touching in ways that have previously been welcome is a common sign, especially if the cat objects to being touched in a particular spot.

3. Agitation and personality changes

If a cat suddenly exhibits behavior that has never been seen before, the reason for the new behavior could be pain. It’s not unusual for a hurt cat to become agitated, or even aggressive — especially if touched or startled. Sometimes a cat who is suffering physical pain will uncharacteristically begin eliminating outside of the litter box. That can be because it hurts them to enter the box or because they experienced pain while in there and therefore don’t wish to return.

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4. Licking

Licking a body part consistently may indicate that the area is hurting the cat, especially if the cat didn’t typically lick that area frequently (or at all) until recently. An absence or sharp decline in the amount of grooming behavior a cat does is a behavior change seen in cats who are in pain.

5. Hiding

Cats who suddenly start hiding should be assessed for pain. Some cats seek out hiding spots because they are avoiding bright areas. A cat seeking out darker parts of the house over well-lit ones may be doing so in order to stay away from bright lights. Other cats may be hiding to avoid social interaction, which may partially be about avoiding any physical contact, but could also just reflect a desire for rest. Even cats who don’t truly disappear in actual hiding spots may retreat from the family and seek isolation. Such behavior changes are especially obvious in highly gregarious cats, but subtle changes in social behavior can be big clues about pain in less social cats, too.

6. Expression of physical limitations

Sometimes the clues that a cat is in pain involve slightly more obvious changes in behavior. A general reluctance to move can be a clue that a cat is experiencing pain. The same is true if a cat begins limping or otherwise walking in a way that is odd or with a different gait than before. Keep an eye out for trouble jumping or an unwillingness to do. Cats who no longer climb onto previously preferred spots may be showing this change in behavior in response to pain.

In general, any behavioral change, especially if it is sudden, can indicate that a cat is in pain. Most people, including me, consider it fair to say that change and cats have an uneasy relationship. It’s unusual for them to change their behavior without a reason. That’s why noticing behavioral changes in cats is so important. Spotting the behavioral signs of pain in cats requires careful observation and the knowledge of what to look for. Your cat can’t tell you in words that they’re hurting, but they can communicate the message clearly all the same.

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Karen B. London, PhD

Karen B. London, Ph.D., is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression, and has also trained other animals including cats, birds, snakes, and insects. She writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life.