Sometimes it’s obvious your cat is in pain. Your cat may be howling, growling or hissing at you when you touch it in a painful spot.
However, it is often less obvious they are in pain. After an injury or fight cats want to hide they are in pain. “People think cats are classically predators, but they are little enough to be potentially prey as well, so it is in their interest to hide pain,” said Carolyn O’Brien, a feline specialist at Melbourne Cat Vets.
For vets it is particularly important to pick up on signs a cat is in pain. This is also quite difficult, though, as most cats hate being at the vet’s. Cats are often anxious and cope with fight or flight behaviour. Their heart rate and blood pressure go up, two ways that are normally used to assess whether an animal is in pain.
Another type of behaviour a cat might show is freezing. “If you see animals really flat, not wanting to move, that very often can indicate movement makes them uncomfortable.” However, at the vet’s it can also mean the cat is just very anxious.
In short, it is difficult for vets to judge whether or not a cat is in pain and they often need to rely on what owners tell them about their cat’s behaviour at home (laying low, being grumpy or less affectionate than usual, and refusing food).
Canadian researchers have now developed a new tool to help vets determine whether a cat is in acute pain based on its facial expressions. This is known as the Feline Grimace Scale (FGS). It looks at the position of a cat’s head as well as their ears, eyes, mouth and whiskers to help determine the level of pain. Tilted heads, flat ears, squinting eyes, and upturned whiskers were common signs of acute pain, according to their research.
The scale was designed to help vets assess pain levels, but as a cat owner you may also find it useful!
The left is a cat showing no signs of pain, whereas the right one is showing all the signs of being in acute pain.