Behavior Changes and Pain in Aging Cats

Feb 8, 2017 | Care & Wellness, Cats

As cats age, we generally see changes in their behavior. The wild and crazy playful activities we associate with kittens gives way to adult cats sleeping in the sun and prowling around the house.  It is important, however, to differentiate normal feline behaviors from abnormal ones that may be associated with pain.

Some behavior changes in aging cats arise from pain and are definitely not normal.

What kind of behavior changes might I see in my cat that could signal pain?

Osteoarthritis (OA) is one of the most common chronically painful ailments in cats, affecting more than 90% of cats 10 years of age and older. Spinal arthritis makes it uncomfortable to twist and turn, so grooming the torso becomes difficult. OA in the lower spine and hips can make the area over the pelvis and upper rear legs tender. When grooming the lower back, pelvis, and rear legs becomes painful, the cat simply stops taking care of its coat. Areas of the cat’s body that are not groomed then become matted, and the cat develops an overall “unkempt” appearance. When we try to help them out by using a comb or brush, they tend to object.

If you notice your cat developing matted hair or flaky skin, make an appointment with your veterinarian, as this can be an important signal of pain.

Are there any changes in litter pan behavior that might mean my cat is in pain?

As we’ve already stated, cats are famously clean and tidy, and that generally means careful with their potty habits as well. They like having a discrete place to eliminate, and most cat litter makes the litter pan an attractive destination. If a cat that has previously been consistent in using the litter pan suddenly begins missing the pan or eliminating in other areas of the house, think of pain as one potential explanation.

Lower back or hip pain can make climbing into and out of a litter pan miserable. In this situation, a cat will often go to the litter pan, but simply refuse to try to get into it. The cat may then choose instead to eliminate near the litter pan, in the same room as the litter pan, or in a completely different part of the house.  Once pain is managed, lower-sided uncovered litter pans are in order.

A variation on this theme may occur if the litter pan is on a different level in the home from where the cat usually hangs out. Traveling up or down a flight of stairs to get to the litter pan may be too daunting a task for a cat with back or hip pain.

I’m worried I could miss pain in my cat. Is there anything else I should watch for?

Cats that once “went vertical” by jumping up onto furniture, counters, and windowsills but now either do not jump or “ask” to be lifted may be in pain and need closer evaluation. One of the measures of a successful pain management protocol in senior cats is the return of jumping behavior.

What is my takeaway message?

In any of the above scenarios, pain should be on the list of considerations. Schedule an appointment with your veterinarian, and voice your concerns. Cats tend to hide their pain, so don’t ignore these behavioral clues into your aging cat’s condition. The sooner we identify and treat pain, the better it is for everyone. Your kitty will thank you!

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