6 Behavioral Signs of Pain in Cats · The Wildest

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6 Ways Your Cat Could Tell You They Are in Pain

Here are all the way your kitty is trying to tell you they’re hurting.

by Karen B. London, PhD, CAAB, CPDT-KA
Updated November 8, 2023
Red cat with squinted eyes laying in a basket closeup

Cats frequently hide their pain — as much as you might think otherwise, they aren’t super dramatic about things that are actual problems. (Now, if you’re five minutes late to feeding them, the real drama starts). However indirect cats are about their pain, it’s possible to spot it through behavioral indicators. One of the biggest signs: changes in 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. Also keep an eye on them if they are being less playful than usual, (acting disinterested in toys that usually elicit playful responses).

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.

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

If your cat suddenly starts hiding, take them to the vet to assess their 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 interactions, which may partially be about avoiding any physical contact. This 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 if your kitty suddenly has trouble jumping or doesn’t seem to want to jump at all anymore.

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.

Karen London holding up a small dog

Karen B. London, PhD, CAAB, CPDT-KA

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.

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