Pain Management in Cats
Cats are experts at hiding pain, and early symptoms of pain due to chronic conditions may go unnoticed for a long period of time as your cat ages. Published studies indicate that 40-92% of all cats may have clinical signs associated with arthritis and that arthritis affects 90% of cats greater than 12 years old. Some subtle signs that we may think are simply due to aging may in fact be indicators of chronic pain and decreased mobility associated with arthritis. Although arthritis is the most common cause of chronic pain in cats, other potential causes include advanced dental disease, chronic conditions affecting the eye such as uveitis, bladder pain due to cystitis, pain from stomach or intestinal inflammation, and various cancers.
So how can you tell your cat is in pain? When it comes to arthritis, limping or crying may be the first symptoms you think of, but in fact those symptoms are rarely found. For many cats, arthritis affects multiple joints and both sides of the body so limping in one particular limb is less common. One of the most common symptoms you may see is that your cat may not jump as often or as high as he or she used to. Your cat may also avoid going up or down stairs, may be stiff when walking, and may seem less active in general, choosing to lie in one position for longer periods of time. Cats often get blamed for urinating or defecating out of their litterbox to spite owners. In fact, many older cats with arthritis or frequent bladder pain may find it hard to make it to a litterbox, especially if it is on a different level of the house. They may also find stepping up into a litter box or crouching under a lid painful, and will defecate just in front of the box. Other signs of pain may include decreased appetite or a preference for wet food over dry food, hiding, and withdrawal from the family. Finally, if your cat suddenly resists brushing, petting, or stroking, especially over the back or hips, this could be a sign of pain.
If you suspect your cat may be in pain, it is best to have one of our veterinarians perform a physical examination. This will allow careful evaluation of the eyes and mouth, and palpation of the abdomen, back and joints for signs of pain. Once the source of pain is better identified, your veterinarian may recommend radiographs (x-rays) to better evaluate the joints or abdomen, or blood or urine testing to evaluate the internal organs, prior to starting medications. If your cat is diagnosed with chronic pain, there are many ways to help your cat feel better. Your veterinarian may prescribe pain or anti-inflammatory medication to help treat the pain from arthritis or cancer. Various joint supplements can promote joint health and slow the progression of arthritis. There is also increasing evidence for the benefits for treatments other than medications, such as acupuncture and therapeutic laser. Finally, if your cat has pain in the mouth, a dental procedure may be beneficial.
Medical treatments aren’t the only way to help your cat feel better. Keeping your cat a healthy, lean body weight is an important part of managing arthritis. Extra weight on affected joints can increase wear and tear and decrease mobility, making the situation even worse. If you are concerned your cat may be overweight, work together with your veterinarian for an optimal weight loss plan. Modifying your pet’s environment can also make all the difference. Simple measures such as raising food and water bowls off the ground can allow for a more comfortable posture. Adding larger litter boxes to multiple floors that are easy to access and don’t require stepping up can improve elimination habits. Get creative and add steps or ramps to access favorite perches, cat trees, couches or window boxes. Use of a heating pad that your cat can safely move away from can also provide a source of comfort during those cooler months.
Chronic pain can commonly trouble cats as they age. The good news is that there are many ways we can work to ease that pain and help our special companions live more comfortable, happier lives.
Photos courtesy of 2015 AAHA/AAFP Pain Management Guidelines