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Feline anguish: New research helps decipher cat pain

Last Updated Jan 17, 2020 at 3:08 pm MST

Cats removed from the home were not in distress. (PHOTO: Tom Ross - 660 NEWS)

CALGARY (660 NEWS) — Cats are notoriously aloof and hard to read, which can make it difficult to determine if they are in pain.

But the age old question of how your cat is feeling may finally be answered, thanks to research done in Canada.

A report co-authored by scientists at the University of Calgary and the Universite de Montreal has detailed the Feline Grimace Scale, which points to the solution to the problem lying directly in the cat’s face.

“What we found is there are few facial features in particular that are really useful to help us identify pain,” said Dr. Daniel Pang, associate professor of anaesthesia and analgesia at the University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, who co-authored the report.

The paper is published in Scientific Reports, and the lead author is Marina Evangelista, a PhD student at the Universite de Montreal.

The keys are in the cat’s eyes, ears and whiskers and should be easily identifiable for all owners or vets.

To sum it up, research shows that if your cat has ears that are upright and forward, eyes that are open and alert, and whiskers are sloped downward — then they should be in good condition.

“As they become more painful, the ears tend to flatten off and rotate backwards,” Pang added. “We look at their muzzle tension [too], and just how they’re carrying their heads. So if their heads are nice and high and happy looking, or are they scrunched up and depressed-looking.”

All of these features, in tandem with typical mood indicators, can help decipher what the animals are going through.

This will be particularly useful for vets, as they can struggle with knowing when to prescribe medication and how much the cat may need.

“Veterinarians struggle to identify pain in cats, and if we can’t identify the pain it also makes it very difficult to decide how much pain medication to give or decide even if the pain medication is working well,” said Pang. “It takes a few seconds versus taking minutes or hours, so something that can be done very easily and quickly — especially if you’re working in a busy clinic without a lot of time on your hands.”

Pang added this can also help determine a threshold of pain, as the research pointed to moderate and high levels of discomfort as well.

Over the course of the study, researchers tested the hypothesis by guessing the pain level of a cat and then seeing the changes after administering medication.

“We could see the change in their faces. So we could see their faces becoming much more relaxed and happy looking. It was really that response to pain medication that helped us confirm we really were identifying pain specifically and not something else,” Pang said.

It does remain to be seen if regular cat owners can take advantage of this research, but Pang is optimistic and at the very least it is better than just trying to ask your cat how it is feeling.

“Sadly they’re not going tell us by talking to us, or raising their paws or anything else.”