Behaviour changes in older cats in pain.

Behaviour changes that might indicate an older cat is in pain.

One of the most common pain-associated behaviour changes we see in aging cats is a decrease in grooming and self-care. Osteoarthritis (OA), often referred to simply as ‘”arthritis”, is one of the most common causes of chronic pain, affecting more than 90% of cats over the age of 10. Spinal arthritis makes it uncomfortable to twist and turn, so grooming the torso becomes difficult. Arthritis in the lower spine and hips can make the area over the pelvis and upper rear legs tender. When grooming becomes painful, the cat simply stops taking care of its coat. Areas of the coat that are not groomed then become matted, and the cat develops an overall “unkempt” appearance. Your cat may object when you attempt to groom them with a brush or comb.

Make an appointment to see your vet if your cat is developing matted hair or flaky skin, as this may be a signal of pain

Changes in toileting behaviour that may be associated with pain.

Cats like having a discrete place to eliminate, and this is usually the litter tray. If a cat that has previously been consistent in using the litter tray suddenly begins missing the tray or toileting in other areas of the house, pain is one potential explanation.
Back or hip pain can make climbing into and out of the litter tray difficult. The cat may choose instead to pass urine or faeces near the litter tray, letting us know that it understands this is the correct place, but also letting us know that he or she is having difficulty getting into the tray. Other cats may choose to toilet in the same room as the litter pan, and still other cats may choose a completely different part of the house. If the litter tray is on a different level in the home from where the cat spends most of its time traveling up or down a flight of stairs to get to the litter tray may become too onerous a task for a cat with back or hip pain.

One final toileting behaviour linked to pain is that a cat might begin to stand while urinating instead of assuming the usual squat position.

Once pain is managed, lower-sided uncovered litter trays are more accessible.


What other changes in behaviour can I look for?

Cats that previously may have been able to jump almost vertically up onto furniture, counters, and windowsills but now either do not jump or “ask” to be lifted may be in pain and need veterinary examination. The return of jumping behaviour can be a measure of successful pain management in the older cat.

As veterinary surgeons and nurses we occasionally see older cats that resent being handled in the consult room. Common comments we hear from the owners are:

  • “She doesn’t like to be picked up.”
  • “He doesn’t like to be stroked on his back (below the waist, over his hips, etc.).”
  • “She doesn’t like me to touch her there” (wherever that may be).
  • “My cat used to be really friendly, but now he hides under the bed when we have company and becomes aggressive when people try to stroke him.”

Although cats may simply be frightened and not enjoy a veterinary examination, they should be willing to allow their owners to touch them everywhere on their bodies. When they object to being touched, stroked, or otherwise handled (particularly if they were once OK about it), this is an indication that pain may be present.


In summary

Many behavioural changes in older cats may indicate that they are in pain. Book an appointment with your vet, and explain your concerns. The sooner we identify and treat pain, the better it is for everyone.


Used and/or modified with permission under license. ©Lifelearn, The Penguin House, Castle Riggs, Dunfermline FY11 8SG

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