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Do Cats Feel Pain in the Same Way Humans Do? (Vet Answer)

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	Dr. Kim Podlecki Photo

Written by

Dr. Kim Podlecki

Veterinarian

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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As pet owners, we love to treat our dogs and cats as our “fur babies”, spoiling them worse than some of our own children. When they are sick or not feeling well, pet parents will often seek veterinary attention similar to seeking a pediatrician for kids.

But what about when your cat is in pain? Do cats feel pain the same way humans do? How can you tell if your cat is in pain? In this article we will discuss how cats perceive pain and what things to look out for to tell if your cat is in fact painful.

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What is pain?

Pain is classified as “Severe physical or mental discomfort or distress”.

However, not all pain is alike. Acute, or sudden pain in a cat will signal some type of danger. This is essential to an animals survival because it signals an immediate threat, often initiating the flight or fight response. Acute pain will typically resolve once the initial injury or stressor has healed or has been removed. An example of this is a cat biting another cat. The contact of the bite will hurt, causing the victim to either immediately run away or counterattack.

There is also chronic pain from multiple causes (e.g. arthritis) that does not typically elicit the same type of flight or fight response. Chronic pain is difficult to diagnose and classify but generally is pain that has been present for at least three months. Chronic pain can be more difficult to identify than acute pain.

cat biting another cat
Image Credit: claude_star, Pixabay

What about a cats nervous system in response to pain – Is it the same as a humans?

Without going into great depth on anatomy and physiology, the short answer is yes. Cats have a nervous system that is very similar to a humans. Both species have a central and peripheral nervous system. The central nervous system includes the brain and spinal cord. The peripheral nervous system includes the muscles and nerves throughout the rest of the body. So while cats and humans are different species, the general make up of their nervous system is very similar. Yes, cats and humans may have different numbers of nerves, or nerves in different areas of their bodies. But their nerves act and react in almost the same way to one another.

Can cats feel pain differently in different areas of the body?

Yes, depending on the area of the body that has suffered an injury or a stressor, a cat may feel pain differently.

Somatic pain is felt when the limbs and/or skin may be injured. Examples of this would be a broken bone, burn or laceration (cut) through the skin.

Visceral pain comes from internal organ injury. We often see this in cats from diseases of the bladder, a foreign body within the intestinal tract or inflammation of the pancreas (known as pancreatitis).

Neuropathic pain originates similar to the name – from nerves and the spinal cord. In cats this can be seen from an extruded disc along the spine, a tumor along the nerve or a traumatic injury such as getting hit by a car.

A single injury can cause more than one type of pain at the same time, it is not all or nothing. Obviously depending on the area of the body affected, the pain feels different. Think about when you get a paper cut – that horrible searing, burning feeling – as compared to the aching, dull, sometimes constant pain of arthritis. It is widely accepted and assumed that most mammals feel pain the same way. Therefore if we extrapolate how we feel during certain injuries, we can safely assume our beloved fur baby felines feel the same injury very similarly.

Cats may exhibit different types of pain in different ways. For instance, limping on a leg (often referred to by owners as “favoring a limb”) is a cat’s way of showing that they hurt when putting weight on that leg. Therefore they will limp or take some of the weight off in attempts to reduce the pain. Other times cats may be very tense or resist an owner touching them in certain areas because they are painful. We commonly see this with arthritis along the spine and a cat that is resistant to being pet or brushed along the back when they may have enjoyed these activities in the past.

Still cats can be masters of disguise. Keep an eye out for your cat to be more or less vocal than usual, sleeping in unusual areas, not wanting to use the litterbox or climb to their favorite perch, etc. Cat pain, especially when chronic, can be difficult to appreciate so please contact your veterinarian if you notice anything unusual with your cat.

sick cat with feline disease
Image Credit: Kittima05, Shutterstock

I thought my cat could tolerate pain more than me?

While it’s true that often times cats seem unbothered by a lot of things, it’s a myth that our modern day domestic cats can tolerate pain better than humans. Often times us as humans do not notice subtle changes in our cat’s behavior that may signify they are in pain. Therefore we assume that cat isn’t painful. Remember what we said above – that it’s widely accepted most mammals feel pain the same way – therefore if you are in pain after you stub your toe, are suffering from a UTI, fall down the stairs or have to have surgery – your cat likely will hurt from the same things.

But if I treat the pain, won’t my cat start running around and hurt themselves?

As veterinarians, we often have owners decline pain medications for their pets because they believe treating pain is masking pain. In other words, an owner won’t be able to tell if their cat is in pain if they give it pain medications because the medication “masks” it. Often owners believe that if they decrease the amount of pain in their pet, the pet will start to be more active and hurt itself worse. Please do not allow your cat to continue to be in pain just to make him/her less active. Imagine yourself with a broken bone, infection or laceration and your level of pain associated with those injuries. Give your cat the same compassion you would give yourself or your child and treat the pain!

vet wrapping cat's injured paw with bandage
Image Credit: VGstockstudio, Shutterstock

However, don’t treat the pain with human medications

One important reminder – that although cats and humans do in fact feel pain similarly to humans, they should not be treated the same. Most human pain medications are severely toxic if not fatal to cats. Please, please, please do not reach into your medicine cabinet and give your cat your own pain medication. Contact your regular veterinarian so that your cat can have appropriate pain medications and receive safe treatment.

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Featured Image Credit: lagunabluemolly, Pixabay

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