How to Recognize Pain in Cats?

Cats instinctively hide discomfort and pain, and knowing if they are experiencing it isn’t always easy. While signs are often obvious when the pain is sudden and intense, for chronic illnesses and pain the signals can be more subtle and easily missed or attributed to other reasons. The signs cats send indicating pain are diverse, and not every cat will respond in the same way, so it’s important to keep a close eye on your cat and be mindful about any minor changes. So, what behaviours and signs might indicate a cat is in pain?

Signs seen in cats that experience pain and/or discomfort 

The following signs can be indicators that a cat is experiencing pain or discomfort. 

  • Reduced appetite
  • Hiding/being withdrawn
  • Vocalisation
  • Reduced movement and activity
  • Decreased interest in cuddles, playing etc
  • Lethargy
  • Change in mood and/or temperament
  • Avoids being handled
  • Decreased or increased grooming
  • Increased irritability
  • Avoiding certain movements, like jumping, or going up and down places.
  • Panting
  • Eliminating outside the litter box
  • Change in sleep habits
  • Trembling legs
  • Stops stretching 
  • Change in scratching behaviour

Body posture

Cats in pain may suddenly, or gradually, change their body posture. They may start keeping their ears slightly flattened, their eyes squinted or closed, and their cheek, mouth and nose tense. A cat that has trembling legs, or is sitting hunched with a lowered head, and a more curved back then normal, may also be experiencing pain and/or discomfort. The same applies to cats that appear as if trying to curl up in a tight ball, or cats that instead of stretching themselves out remain compressed with their legs tucked underneath themselves.


Any changes in behaviour might indicate your cat isn’t feeling well. If your normally affectionate cat suddenly only wants to hide under the bed, this may indicate they are sick and/or in pain. Aggression, increased irritability, general disinterest, or lethargy are also indications there might be something wrong. Sudden unexplained aggression always warrants a vet visit.


Cats are very clean animals, and spend about 30% to 50% of their day grooming themselves. Any changes in this behaviour, often indicate they may be ill, in discomfort and/or pain. The lack of grooming over time will turn the coat messy and unkept, so even if you can’t keep a close eye on the grooming habits of your cat, the look of their coat can be used as an indicator of their health and well-being.. Overgrooming can also be a sign of pain, and is usually seen when a part of the body hurts. The overgrooming of the sore spot can lead to wounds and bald spots. 

Decreased energy and change in sleep habits

Cats that are ill or in pain, sometimes change their sleep habits. They might start sleeping more and overall lack energy, or the opposite happens, and they sleep  less because they are uncomfortable in certain sleeping positions. Due to this you might find your cat sleeping in weird places or positions. 


A good indicator of the health of your cat is their appetite. Any change in eating and drinking habits might indicate illness or pain. A cat that stops eating should be seen by a vet as they will be at risk of developing hepatic lipidosis. 


When there are changes in the elimination process of your cat, this might indicate pain and/or discomfort. Problems with the hips, knees, elbows and/or spine may make squatting painful, resulting in withholding which can lead to constipation. Another indicator for pain or discomfort is urinating and/or defecating outside of their litter box. For example when entering and exiting the litter box is painful, chances are they will eliminated elsewhere. 

Vocalisation and panting

When cats are in pain they may increase vocalisation. Sounds that may be heard are frequent urgent and/or unpleasant meowing, hissing, growling, and  groaning. Purring in some cases can also indicate discomfort and will happen in moments you wouldn’t expect purring. 

I think my cat is in pain, what now?

When you suspect your cat might be in pain, have a vet examine them. Prolonged periods of pain without treatment and/or pain management will put unnecessary stress on your cat and affect their well-being. A vet can examine the source of the pain, provide treatment where possible, and provide pain relief. Never give cats human pain medication as most are dangerous to cats. Medication like Aspirin can lead to kidney and liver damage, ulcers and other issues. And one dose of  regular-strength Tylenol contains enough acetaminophen to kill a cat. 


While some signs of pain in cats may be subtle, especially when the pain or illness is chronic, by staying vigilant and being aware about the signs cats might send when in pain we can provide them with treatment and relief as soon as possible. Suspected pain should always be investigated and treated at the vet.

If you would like to know more about our cat sitting or cat relocation services, feel free to contact us. Our team will be happy to help.

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