Behavior Changes and Pain in Aging 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. We commonly presume senior cats will take even longer naps in the sun or on our beds. It is important, however, to differentiate normal feline behaviors from abnormal ones, as some behavior changes in aging cats arise from pain and are definitely not normal.
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?
One of the most common pain-associated behavior changes we see in aging cats is a decrease in grooming and self-care. Cats are, by nature, extremely fastidious about keeping themselves clean. Watch any conscious cat for longer than a few minutes, and you are likely to see it cleaning some part of its body. 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. Because cats like to be clean, a dirty kitty is not normal! If your cat has trouble grooming even after its pain is well managed, consider having a groomer give it a “lion cut” to make the torso hair short and easy to keep clean.
One of the most common pain-associated behavior changes in aging cats is a decrease in grooming and self-care.
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 appropriately suddenly begins missing the pan or eliminating in other areas of the house, think of pain as one potential explanation.
When cats have lower back or hip pain, climbing into and out of a litter pan can be miserable. Even worse are covered litter pans, where the top of the opening can come into contact with the cat’s back. In this situation, a cat will often go to the litter pan, but simply refuse to try to get into it. The cat may choose instead to eliminate near the litter pan, letting us know that it understands this is the “potty place,” but also letting us know that it is uncomfortable getting into the pan. Other cats may simply choose to eliminate in the same room as the litter pan, but not necessarily next to it. And still other cats may choose a completely different part of the house for elimination. 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.
One last altered litter pan behavior linked to pain is the cat that begins to stand while urinating instead of assuming the usual squat position. These cats can no longer squat comfortably. By standing to urinate, they may actually miss the litter pan, allowing urine to hit the nearest vertical surface or to collect on the nearby floor.
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.
Occasionally, we see a senior cat in practice that resents being handled in the examination room. Common comments we hear from the owners are:
- “She doesn’t like to be picked up.”
- “He doesn’t like to be petted on his back (below the waist, over his hips, etc.).”
- “She doesn’t like me to touch her there” (wherever that may be).
- “My cat used to be really friendly, but now he hides under the bed when we have company and becomes aggressive when people try to pet him.”
Although cats may simply be shy about the veterinary examination room, they should be willing to allow their owners to touch them everywhere on their bodies. When they object to being touched, petted, or otherwise handled (particularly if they were once OK about it), this is a serious “red flag” that pain may be present.
Cats tend to hide their pain, so don’t ignore behavioral clues into your aging cat’s condition.
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!