Overview of Feline Pain

Pain is the unpleasant sensation that develops with the stimulation of specialized sensory nerve endings, called pain receptors. Pain most often develops from damage, irritation or inflammation of tissues or structures of the body. Pain is a protective mechanism. It causes the cat to react and to move away from the source of the stimulus.

Pain receptors are present in many tissues of the cat’s body, including the skin, the covering of the bones (periosteum), the walls of arteries, the surfaces of joints, the lining tissues of the chest and abdomen, the cornea and tissues around the eye, and the meninges of the brain and spinal cord.

Types of stimuli that excite the pain receptors include mechanical forces, such as stretching, tearing or fracturing of tissues; thermal stimuli, such as cold or heat; and chemical substances. The chemical substances that stimulate pain receptors are tiny molecules produced in the body when tissues are damaged or inflamed. They include chemicals like serotonin, histamine, prostaglandins, bradykinin, and various enzymes. These chemicals are all mediators of inflammation in the body.

Once a pain receptor is stimulated, information on the pain is transported back to the brain, where the sensation is perceived. Both fast and slow pain fibers exist in the cat’s body. The fast transmission of pain signals allows the animal to be rapidly warned about impending damage to some area of the body, and allows them to react quickly. The slow transmission of pain information allows the pain sensation to continue and provides a mechanism for chronic pain to develop.

Pain may be perceived only at the site of the stimulation of the nerve receptors, or may be referred to a nearby area on the body. For example, compression of nerve roots just outside the spinal cord of the neck may result not only in neck pain, but also lameness in the front leg. Pain caused by inflammation within the kidney may be detected as pain along the upper back.

The threshold for perceiving pain is determined by the sensitivity of the pain receptors. Some cats appear to have a higher threshold for pain than others. In general, cats seem to be more stoic with regards to pain than are some dogs. In animals pain thresholds and sensation are difficult to measure because they do not speak. In people various methods have been developed for detecting and measuring pain, but these tests are not often applicable in animals.

Causes of Feline Pain

Any cause of tissue damage or inflammation is potentially capable of causing pain. Examples of such causes include the following:

  • Trauma – fractures, sprains, dislocations, wounds, muscle tearing, blunt forceful injuries
  • Exposure to heat – flame, hot water, heating devices
  • Exposure to extreme cold – frostbite, cold surfaces, cold weather
  • Tissue inflammation – from infections, from pathologic conditions or diseases, from physical changes
  • Necrosis of tissue – death of the tissue
  • Ischemia – loss of blood supply to the tissue
  • Stretching of tissue – especially of round or hollow organs
  • Spasm of tissues – especially of muscles or muscular organs
  • Organs That May Manifest Pain or Become Painful

  • Bones
  • Joints and ligaments
  • Muscles
  • Skin and soft tissues under the skin
  • Tissues of the mouth
  • Portions of the brain and spinal cord
  • Tissues within and around the eye
  • Certain components of the ear and ear canals
  • Certain structures within the chest, particularly the esophagus and tissues lining the chest (pleura)
  • Many abdominal organs, including those of the gastrointestinal tract, urinary tract, reproductive tract, and the tissues lining the abdomen (peritoneum)
  • Tissues near the anus and tail
  • External genitalia
  • What to Watch For

    Manifestations of pain are highly variable in animals. Some signs are obviously related to pain, while others are more subtle. The individual personality of the animal and its tolerance for pain also affect the clinical manifestations of pain. Animals in pain often present with a wide variety of signs. Some signs that are associated with pain include the following:

  • Altered behavior – quieter than normal, avoidance of other animals or people, hiding, aggressive behavior, fear biting, mental dullness and depression, agitation, restlessness, pacing
  • Altered movement or gait – lameness, reluctance to move, reluctance to get up, wobbliness, abnormal carriage or use of one or more legs, stiffness
  • Vocalization – meowing, howling, moaning, groaning, absence of purring
  • Decreased or lack of appetite (anorexia)
  • Increased respiratory rate
  • Increased heart rate
  • Shock, collapse
  • Diagnosis of Pain in Cats

    An important part of evaluating pain is to localize the pain, which involves determining what part of the body is painful. A thorough history and physical examination are performed. These must be done with care in order not to worsen the animal’s pain and to avoid injury to the veterinarian and the veterinary assistants. Depending upon the outcome of the examination, further diagnostic tests may include the following:

  • Complete eye examination
  • Complete neurologic examination
  • Complete orthopedic examination
  • Thorough oral examination
  • Thorough examination of the ears
  • Thorough examination of the external genitalia
  • Complete blood count (CBC)
  • Biochemical profile
  • Urinalysis and urine culture
  • X-rays of the chest, abdomen, spine or any area identified as painful
  • An ultrasound of the abdomen or heart
  • Cytology and/or biopsy of tissue or fluid
  • Serologic tests for certain infectious diseases
  • Bacterial culture of any infected tissues
  • Cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) tap
  • Computed tomography (CT scan) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • Treatment of Pain in Cats

  • The goals of treatment are to identify the source of pain and remove it, and to use medications to alleviate the pain. Initially the pain must be localized to a specific site, then a diagnosis made as to the cause of the pain. Specific therapy is designed to alleviate the underlying cause.
  • Alleviation of pain involves the use of analgesics (drugs that numb the pain sensors) and anti-inflammatories. Whenever possible, a diagnosis of the cause of the pain and therapy for that cause should be instituted prior to administration of pain medications. Administration of analgesics and anti-inflammatory drugs as an empirical, symptomatic treatment can be dangerous.
  • Cats are highly susceptible to the effects of certain analgesic drugs, and such drugs must be used cautiously. Injectable pain medications that may be used in the cat include butorphanol, buprenorphine, hydromorphone, fentanyl, morphine, and oxymorphone. The only oral analgesic drug that is commonly available for use in cats is butorphanol. The oral analgesic acetaminophen should never be used in cats because it is highly toxic to cats.
  • Cats are also highly susceptible to anti-inflammatory agents, and their use is restricted to just a few products. Anti-inflammatory agents are divided into two categories, steroidal and non-steroidal drugs (NSAIDs). Steroidal agents, such as prednisone and dexamethasone, are reserved for the treatment of certain specific diseases or conditions. Two non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agents that can be used safely in the cat are aspirin and ketoprofen. The dosages of these medications are much smaller than that used for people or dogs, so these drugs should never be given without consulting with your veterinarian. Overdosage with these medications may result in serious illness and side effects.
  • Supportive care may also be indicated during the period of diagnostic testing and the initiation of therapy. Supportive care may include the use of intravenous fluids, supplemental nutrition, keeping the animal quiet and confined, the use of cold or warm compresses, and altering the temperature of the environment.
  • Home Care for Cats with Pain

    Administer any prescribed medication as directed by your veterinarian. Observe your cat’s general activity and appetite, and watch closely for improvement in the signs believed to be associated with the onset of pain. If signs should worsen, contact your veterinarian immediately.

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