Cats are one of the few species that is both prey and predator. Prey animals hide their pain so they don't appear weak, and therefore an easy target. Small domestic house cats may not have any predators, but they have retained that instinct.
Be Very Quiet
Cats hide pain well for a number of reasons, most of them having to do with survival. To begin with, the lion is the only big cat that lives in a pride; the lesser cats and domestic cats do not. This means they are vulnerable to larger predators that may see them as lunch. If a cat living in the wild is sick or injured, his distress calls won't bring an ambulance, but it may bring a coyote or other predator. Therefore, cats will usually stay very still and quiet when they are in pain. There is one breed of cat, however, that doesn't subscribe to this policy and that's the Siamese cat, a most vociferous animal. The Siamese howls when frightened, angry and possibly even when hurt. Since cats are an enigma, this particular quirk among domestic cats doesn't seem all that unusual; there are exceptions to every rule.
Run and Hide
Cats will often hide pain by hiding themselves. In the wild, the lesser cats will hide in tall grasses, caves and trees. They make themselves as small as possible and keep a wary lookout while tending to their wounds. This isn't too hard for them to do as the pain itself makes the cat lethargic. Their instinct takes over because cats who show they are in pain to any other cats who may be living nearby are giving away their rights to their territory and hunting grounds. Though they may not live in prides or families as lions do, the lesser cats do tend to live in colonies loosely based on familial relationships. Demonstrating weakness only earns the cat a demotion in the hierarchy.
Myths About Cat Pain
There are myths surrounding cat pain. One of the most popular ones is that cats only purr when they are content. This is not true. Cats purr when they are trying to calm themselves, or when they are in great pain. Another myth has to do with just how well cats mask pain. They are so good at it, in fact, that there was a time in veterinary medicine when it was assumed pain does not manifest itself in cats in the same way it does in humans. This sad and tragic misconception led veterinarians to perform painful procedures on them without the benefit of anesthesia or post-procedure pain medication. Thankfully, those days are over for enlightened veterinary professionals.
For Appearance's Sake
So just what does pain in a cat look like? Certainly if your cat has an injury that looks like it hurts, it hurts. If it looks like it would hurt you, it is hurting your cat. She just can't tell you about it so you need to play detective. Just like in any other industry, there are industry terms in the veterinary field. In veterinary vernacular, there is a code for animals that are not really displaying any exact symptoms, they just are not "quite right." The code is ADR, and it means "ain't doin' right." It simply means that the owner just knows something is wrong even though the animal is not actually showing any signs or symptoms of a problem. You know it when you see it in your own cat. Then again, you may see clear signs such as a lack of appetite, moaning, inability to move correctly, lameness or panting. If you see anything that looks out of the ordinary, or you suspect your cat is ADR, get in to see a vet as soon as possible. Pain is the result of a medical problem that needs to be addressed.
Always check with your veterinarian before changing your pet’s diet, medication, or physical activity routines. This information is not a substitute for a vet’s opinion.
Michelle A. Rivera is the author of many books and articles. She attended the University of Missouri Animal Cruelty School and is certified with the Florida Animal Control Association. She is the executive director of her own nonprofit, Animals 101, Inc. Rivera is an animal-assisted therapist, humane educator, former shelter manager, rescue volunteer coordinator, dog trainer and veterinary technician.