Wouldn’t it be great if you could talk to your cat? While it would make your life easier, not to mention your precious feline more comfortable, you could learn what’s bothering Charlie or Luna. Pain is not a secret you want your cat to keep, monitoring signs large and small is key to deciphering your feline companion.
You do have the power though to observe your cat’s routine, behavior, even subtle facial and physical features. Cats are masters at hiding illnesses and pain so, you need to pay attention before something small becomes major.
It all starts by realizing that cats are much different than other companion animals, says Elizabeth Colleran, DVM, MS, DABVP Feline, a noted veterinarian who specializes in feline care.
“Cats are solitary hunters and territorial. They hunt but do so independently. That’s why they don’t jump up and down and wag their tail when a tasty morsel is discovered. They don’t want anyone to know, ‘Hey, I found a meal,’ because a bigger predator might be likely to steal it.”
Equally important, cats hide their illnesses and injuries. It’s not that they want to keep it a secret, Dr. Colleran notes, but rather it’s an ingrained behavior to ensure survival. “Cats simply don’t want to show any signs of vulnerability. A weakness could deprive a solitary hunter of the best place to hunt, eat, hide or rest.”
Unlock Secrets by Noticing Signals of Pain
As good actors, cats can’t keep every secret, though. Eventually, their behavior – noticeable and subtle – may indicate problems. You just need to be on your toes to recognize the signals.
Litter Box: Watch your cat’s all-important bathroom. Some signs hit home quickly such as blood in your cat’s urine or diarrhea. Others may be noticeable but yet tougher to decipher. More frequent or less frequent urination provides a key warning sign. More frequent trips could point to a number of issues such as a urinary tract infection, kidney disease, diabetes and other health challenges. Additionally, if your cat prefers the rug to the litter box, they are not acting out or being vengeful but simply can no longer climb in the box thanks to arthritis, Dr. Colleran says. Other reasons to decide the litterbox isn’t the place to “go” are possible as well.
Here Kitty, Kitty: If your cat unexpectedly begins to hide or is found in parts of the house where she never was before, that’s a tip-off. Remember, cats can’t show weakness and hiding is a natural survival response. That sore paw or leg or other painful condition needs attention. A fear response to some perceived threat in the house like visitors, unusual noises, disrupted routine, for example, can result in hiding behavior.
Time for a Drink: If your cat starts drinking more water, it could be a sign of diabetes, chronic kidney disease and other health challenges. These are serious barriers to quality of life and MUST be evaluated. Drinking less can be significant, too.
Time for Dinner: Your cat routinely eats the food you place in the bowl. Watch for signs of their eating habits – eats more, eats less, eats differently (like only chewing on one side) or has abruptly changed her texture preference. These may be a warning signs that your cat is in pain or has a medical issue such as a decayed tooth, upset stomach or aversion to a food for another reason.
Talk the Walk: Cats don’t limp when pain hits their legs. Instead, they tend to bunny hop, walk stiffly, be reluctant to play, or sleep even more than usual. Plus, if kitty no longer jumps up on the counter or washing machine where she usually eats, it could be arthritis or some other painful problem.
Laying Around: Your cat lets you know when it’s hurting simply based on activity. If he was a bundle of energy but now sits like a frog on a lily pad, something is up. If she lays in a different position to rest, it might be significant. For example, if she usually sleeps curled up but is now sitting up on her chest with feet tucked under her. It may simply be a more comfortable position because of abdominal pain, for example, Dr. Colleran warns.
Talking at You: Cats who are usually quiet who are suddenly more vocal really are trying to tell you something. Conversely, cats who grow quieter than usual may also be conveying a change in health or emotional well-being. Usually independent cats who become “clingy” and affectionate cats who suddenly aren’t really are saying something important about how they are feeling.
All Eyes on Kitty: Facial expressions and other body conditions are subtle but key indicators of pain. For example, their eyes are usually almond-shaped but become squinty slits when they feel pain. Watch those whiskers, too. They tend to contract and rise up higher on their head when something hurts. If your cat hunches or the fur starts to stand up, you should have your cat checked, Dr. Colleran says.
Part of a Team
By monitoring your cat’s routine, behavior, physical and even emotional signs, an owner may see changes, which should send you to your local veterinarian for a more concrete diagnosis.
Granted, you should be visiting your veterinarian at least once a year and more often as your cat ages. These regular check-ups are critical in maintaining your cat’s health and helping your veterinarian develop a medical history.
Noticeable changes, though, should send you back to the office. Dr. Colleran knows of countless stories of clients who self-diagnosed problems only to discover after their visit that they were way off base. As an example, she points to cat owners who think that their new diet has trimmed down their feline. Instead, evaluation and testing uncovered a debilitating hyperthyroid issue.
Dr. Colleran tells her clients to keep a journal when they begin to notice changes in behavior, activities or routine. These observations can guide your veterinarian in uncovering the problem. Your veterinarian can also provide access to pain management scales to guide you in observing and then reporting back on your cat’s behavior and physical characteristics.
She also encourages some clients to use photos or video to help turn those secrets into a plan to alleviate a problem. As an example, she knew one client’s older cat suddenly refused to use the litter box. Countless tests couldn’t find any other problems until a video showed the cat simply couldn’t navigate a minefield of mowers, toys, tools and more to use the litterbox in the garage!
This teamwork leads to an approach designed to manage the problem and help with the pain. It may be using a drug to treat a condition or pain or perhaps even non-pharmaceutical therapies such as acupuncture, lasers, heat or electromagnetic field products. Your veterinarian also will look at your cat’s diet to correct problems and eliminate pain. And it may be simply modifying the cat’s environment – moving the food bowl down from the washing machine to the floor or building a ramp so your arthritic cat can easily walk up on the bed for slumber.
The plan really depends on the cat’s problem, the client’s wishes and the acuteness of the pain. “We always come up with a plan that works for both the client and the cat,” Dr. Colleran notes. If your cat simply hides when it’s time for medicine, something needs to change she notes. After all, she never wants to alter the bond between you and your beloved cat.
A leading expert in all things feline, Elizabeth Colleran, DVM, MS, DABVP Feline also encourages cat owners to visit catfriendly.com, a site focused on cat care.