Pain in cats (including arthritis & dental disease)

Pain in cats (including arthritis & dental disease)

CatPain1A lot of research has been done in the last 10 years about pain in cats. Dogs can tell us about pain much more easily as they cry, pant and whimper but cats don’t do this. In fact usually the more pain there is the quieter a cat will go. This makes it very difficult for us to spot pain in the early stages. It is sometimes frustrating as a vet when you know a cat is in pain but the owner doesn’t realise as they often say to us ‘well its not crying so I thought it wasn’t too bad’. This is not because the owner doesn’t care, it is just that they don’t understand the language of cats. I will try to explain in this email about the subtle signs and behaviours to look for to assess if pain is becoming a problem in your cat. The commonest causes of chronic ongoing pain in older cats are arthritis and teeth problems.

CatPain2Cats with mouth pain will not stop eating until things are really bad. I have seen some horrific mouths and am always surprised when it is reported the cat is still eating! Generally if the mouth is sore the cat will eat but it may become pickier. It might start preferring wet food instead of crunching dry food, it might have a few mouthfuls then turn away. In the longer term it will not eat as much as it should and will gradually loose weight. A cat with a sore mouth will also not groom itself as much. So sometimes we see a matted coat or a dull, flaky coat. Interestingly if a cat has arthritis in its neck or back it will usually have a poor coat because it is too sore to groom, so watching the coat condition is very important. As the mouth gets sorer you might see the cat pawing at his mouth intermittently or sometimes getting a ‘juddery’ jaw (just imagine the dentist has touched a nerve in your mouth and you get that sudden shooting pain). Some cats eat a few mouthfuls then run away from their food as they think the food is hurting them.

Rotten teeth do not only cause pain though. The plaque that collects on the teeth contains millions of bacteria. These bacteria are constantly being swallowed and can cause upset tummys. The bacteria also constantly get into the blood and are filtered by the kidneys. Over time the kidneys get scarred and damaged. Also bacteria in the blood can sit on the heart valves and stop the heart working as well as it should.

I think I could talk about this forever! All cats are different and not one will show the same sign as the other.

The commonest signs of dental problems and hence mouth pain to look for are:

  • Sleeping more
  • Eating less
  • Smelly breath
  • Drooling or pawing at the mouth
  • Matted or dull coat
  • Changes in character especially grumpier or hiding away

CatPain3I will always remember a cat that came in with Cats Protection Charity who had been rehomed two times but both times had to be taken back as he kept attacking people. We anaesthetised him and found very subtle signs of tooth problems. We ended up having to take lots of teeth out but after he recovered he was a different cat, friendly and laid back. Not all aggressive cats have sore mouths but it just showed me how cats show signs differently than we would expect.

Arthritis is another cause of chronic pain in cats. It comes on so slowly that sometimes you hardly notice anything.

CatPain4A study was recently done where vets were asked to examine different cats and score how arthritic they thought they were. This was then compared to x-rays of the joints which showed how much arthritis there was. The results were surprising. Even us vets find it hard to tell so we need to look at the big picture – how your cat is acting at home, its habits, appetite etc to get a good idea of things.

Cats don’t like to make a fuss. They like to have habits too so even if they are aching they will try to do the same things, like jumping onto the windowsill to get out the window instead of using the door because they always have done.

Sometimes you will notice them pulling themselves onto the sofa instead of jumping up. Or they may choose to sleep somewhere else that’s easier to get to. Watch for ingrowing toenails, as they get stiff in their front legs they stop using scratching posts. The nails continue to curl round and dig into the pads. It is easy to not notice this, especially if the fur on the feet is long.

Sometimes their toileting habits change and they start messing in a different place or on the carpet. For very old cats try using a shallow tray or cutting a lip out to allow access in and out more easily.

CatPain5Again lack of grooming or a poor coat could mean stiffness if it is stopping them from getting to the hard-to-reach places. Help them out with regular brushing but do it gently as they don’t like being pulled around when they are stiff.

Have a look at this video which explains some signs to look for

There are medications to help stiffness too. Some supplements especially with glucosamine or omega will help in the early days. As the stiffness progresses you and your vet might talk about using painkillers and anti-inflammatories. The purpose of these is the same principle as a rusty hinge. If you can relieve the pain in the joints then your cat will use the legs more and the range of movement and strength in the muscles will remain for much longer.


Understandably owners are reluctant to start medications but side effects are easy to monitor and the benefits in keeping your cat mobile and happy are great.

We have had a lot of recent success with a joint supplement call yumove Advance for cats. It has very good quality components that have been proven in a clinical trial to help with arthritis.

This video is quite long, and talks about the dog tablet, but the ingredients and principles are the same for cats. It costs about £20 for 2 months worth of cat tablets. Please ask at reception if you are interested.

If the stiffness or discomfort is getting worse then there is also medication, in the form of a liquid, which can be very useful. Your vet would be pleased to discuss if this is suitable for your cat.

To book an appointment with our team of animal experts, call our Lancaster surgery on 01524 32696, our Morecambe surgery on 01524 410867 or our Milnthorpe surgery on 01539 562770. Alternatively, send us an email to and we will get back to you within 24 hours.