The 25 Signs That Your Cat Could Be In Pain

Fancy yourself a cat whisperer? Veterinarians agree that these 25 signs are the best indications of pain in cats

Feb 29, 2016 at 2:57 PM ET

Ever wondered whether Grumpy Cat is in fact, grumpy—or just a happy cat with an unfortunate face? International veterinary experts have just brought us one step closer toward understanding feline feelings, according to a new study published in PLoS One. Researchers identified 25 behavioral signs that indicate pain in cats, paving the way for more precise veterinary care for the cats that bring us so much joy—and so many viral videos.

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Animals don’t always express themselves like humans. For instance, dogs aren’t necessarily happy when make that dopey panting smile with their mouths (although it might mean that they’re excited). Cats—who seldom smile, perhaps because they are too busy plotting our demise—have similarly confusing emotions. In fact, even when a cat groans, cries and lies on its belly, three behaviors that would certainly signify pain for a human, it is not necessarily in any sort of distress.

This presents a problem for veterinarians and cat lovers alike. How can we ensure that animals are receiving proper medical care if we can’t ask them what they’re feeling, or infer it from their actions?

Researchers from the University of London set out to solve this problem by collating a list of 25 behavioral signs that may indicate feline distress or pain. Scientists first presented an international panel of veterinary experts in feline medicine with 67 behavioral signs related to pain, and asked them to evaluate how reliable they considered each sign. Then, they asked the experts to add any signs of pain that they considered reliable, but were not included on the list.

The researchers then compiled a list of 25 key signs that experts largely agreed upon as indicative of pain, including an absence of grooming, a hunched-up posture, avoiding bright areas, change in feeding behavior and difficulty jumping. Curiously, the researchers could not find any expert consensus over so-called “necessary” signs of pain—that is, no one condition was so essential to feline pain that, without it, it was impossible to say that the cat was actually in pain. Every condition on this list, the researchers clarified, can only be used as part of a holistic approach to assessing pain.

“Cats are notorious for not showing that they are in pain, and the more that we can find out what the signals are, then the sooner we can get them to the vets for diagnosis and treatment,” said Caroline Fawcett, Chairman of Feline Friends, in a press statement. “There is a long way still to go before the more subtle signs can be identified, but we are really excited about progress to date.”

Here’s a list of the 25 key signs of pain in cats: