Assessing Pain in Cats
Cats don’t often show obvious signs of pain (at least not obvious to people). Because cats don’t speak human, we have to learn to speak cat—that is, read their behavior cues and body language—to know when they’re hurting and need help.
September is Animal Pain Awareness Month, so this article highlights 2 tools used to evaluate pain in cats. Cat owners and veterinarians can use the Feline Musculoskeletal Pain Index (FMPI) to identify signs of joint pain in cats. The Feline Grimace Scale uses changes in cats’ facial expressions to help veterinarians assess the need for pain relief in hospitalized cats.
If you think your cat is in pain, contact your veterinarian. Never give a cat any pain medication unless your veterinarian has specifically recommended it. Many over-the-counter and prescription pain medications for humans and dogs are dangerous for cats.
Feline Musculoskeletal Pain Index
Arthritis is very common in senior cats and can also affect young cats. Other joint and tendon disorders also cause chronic (long-term) pain in cats. These conditions are notoriously difficult to diagnose in cats by physical examination alone; cats don’t tend to cooperate during orthopedic exams. However, chronic pain causes changes in behavior and mobility that we can observe and track over time.
Researchers at NCSU College of Veterinary Medicine developed the FMPI to help cat owners and veterinarians diagnose and monitor chronic pain caused by joint disorders. This tool has been clinically validated, meaning that it’s accurate and reliable.
The FMPI is a questionnaire for cat owners. In the questionnaire, owners rank their cat’s ability to perform normal activities like these:
Each item is scored, and the total score indicates the cat’s level of impairment. After a cat starts treatment, the FMPI can be used to evaluate whether the cat’s pain is decreasing over time.
You can find more information about the FMPI at its website: https://painfreecats.org/.
Feline Grimace Scale
Grimace scales are used to assess pain in a number of animal species. These scales evaluate changes in facial expression caused by tension in specific facial muscles in response to pain.
Researchers at the University of Montreal developed the Feline Grimace Scale to help veterinarians detect acute (short-term) medical, surgical, or dental pain in cats in the hospital. This scale, like the FMPI, has been clinically validated.
The Feline Grimace Scale includes 5 facial action units that reflect levels of pain:
Each facial action unit is scored, and the total score indicates the cat’s level of pain. A score above a certain point suggests that a cat needs pain medication. The scale is also used to monitor response to pain medication.
More information, including illustrations of the different facial expressions, is available at the Feline Grimace Scale website: https://www.felinegrimacescale.com/.
Photo by Yerlin Matu
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Socialization helps dogs become comfortable with new people, animals, and situations. It’s especially crucial for puppies and newly adopted dogs. Socializing dogs requires a little creativity during a pandemic, but you can still make sure they have the experiences they need to be well-adjusted pets.
The best age to socialize puppies is up to about 3 months. Very young pups consider everything they encounter to be a normal part of life, so they’re not likely to be afraid of these things later on. After 3 to 4 months of age, their brains are less receptive to new experiences and their fear responses increase. Puppies that don’t receive adequate early socialization sometimes grow into adult dogs with fearful, anxious, or aggressive behaviors that could land them in a shelter.
Adult dogs also benefit from socialization and training. Newly adopted dogs need consistency and routine to help them settle into their new homes. Carefully exposing dogs to things that worry them, with plenty of positive reinforcement and professional help if necessary, can help them manage their fears. As always, contact your veterinarian if your dog is especially fearful or has had changes in behavior.
Here are some things you can do to enrich your dog's environment during times of physical distancing.
Give your dog toys that engage all of the senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch. Rotate the toys so your dog doesn’t get bored. Let your dog explore different areas of the house under supervision.
Let young puppies interact safely with everyday objects, especially ones that move or make noise: brooms, umbrellas, pots and pans, blenders, vacuum cleaners, lawn mowers, bicycles, and so forth. Play music. Let your puppy play on different surfaces, like wood, carpet, pillows on the floor, slick surfaces, gravel, concrete, and grass.
Wear hats, sunglasses, and your pandemic face covering—not necessarily all at the same time—in front of your puppy. Move the furniture around to help your pup get used to changes in the environment.
Give dogs and puppies practice spending time alone to help prevent separation anxiety when you have to leave. Use positive reinforcement to teach your new dog or puppy that their crate is a safe space.
Sit outside with your dog or puppy and watch people go by. Is the neighbor using a leaf blower? Fabulous—this is a great opportunity to teach a young pup that loud sounds are OK. (If your dog is afraid of the sound, don’t push this! The point is to get puppies used to noises before they develop noise anxiety, not to force a fearful dog to sit through something scary.)
Take your dog on walks. The more people, other dogs, and noisy vehicles a puppy encounters before 3 months of age, the better. Adult dogs also need the sensory stimulation they get from walks. Maintain physical distance from other people during the pandemic; the CDC recommends keeping dogs at least 6 feet away from people who aren’t in their own household.
Go for car rides, gradually increasing your dog’s time in the car. If your pet has motion sickness or car anxiety, contact your veterinarian.
Dogs that are used to being handled are less stressed than others at the veterinary clinic. Prepare your puppy for future veterinary visits by using positive reinforcement while touching his paws, ears, tail, and belly. On behalf of clinic staff everywhere, I beg you to get your puppy comfortable with foot handling while he’s young. Contact your veterinary clinic for advice if your dog has trouble with nail trims at home.
Socializing Dogs During COVID-19 (American Veterinary Medical Association): https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/animal-health-and-welfare/covid-19/socializing-dogs-during-covid-19
Socializing Your Puppy During the COVID-19 Pandemic (University of Minnesota Veterinary Medical Center): https://www.vmc.umn.edu/sites/vmc.umn.edu/files/puppy_socializing_during_covid19.pdf
1. American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior. AVSAB position statement on puppy socialization. 2008. Accessed September 4, 2020. https://avsab.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Puppy_Socialization_Position_Statement_Download_-_10-3-14.pdf
2. Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19): if you have pets. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated June 28, 2020. Accessed September 4, 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/pets.html
Photo by Alvan Nee
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
The contents of this blog are for information only and should not substitute for advice from a veterinarian who has examined the animal. All blog content is copyrighted by Mallard Creek Animal Hospital and may not be copied, reproduced, transmitted, or distributed without permission.