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How to Tell If Your Kitten Is In Pain

March 9, 2010
kitten with fractured pelvis x-ray

The hip joint on the left shows the pelvic fracture

6-Month Old Kitten Versus Automobile= Fractured Pelvis

Sugar is a 6-month-old grey and white short, plush haired kitten.  She usually stayed indoors all the time, but when  repairman came to the house, she slipped out the door. Her family looked for hours, but she was nowhere to be found.

3 days later, she crawled up to the porch, her hind legs dragging, a pained, awful, desperate look on her face.  Still, mom and dad did not rush to the emergency room.  They gave her food, water, and a warm, comfortable bed, and waited until the next day to come see Doc Truli.  They could find no sores, no wounds, they really couldn’t tell what had happened to Sugar.

“Why didn’t they take the kitten right to the vet’s office,” you ask.

I was wondering the same thing.

Sugar’s mom explained, “I thought she must be in pain, but she didn’t cry or meow or anything.  So I thought maybe I was wrong and she’d be okay.  I didn’t want to stress her with the car ride.” (Veterinarians hear this almost every day.)

Doc Truli had the benefit of x-rays, that showed fractures in many places in Sugar’s pelvis.

But there were clear signs that Sugar was in a great deal of pain.

Signs of Pain in a Kitten or Cat:

1. Look at the kitten’s face.

Look at this picture and ask yourself, “Is this kitten happy or sad?”

6-month old kitten in pain after fracturing pelvis

Notice how this kitten stares inward and back a little.

Sad, right?

Notice the unfocused, distracted, almost inward stare slightly to her side and to the back.  She is thinking about the pain in her hips and back.

Don’t worry, I took this picture as I was giving her a good painkiller injection.

2. Watch the breathing.

Sugar was calm, and then she started breathing faster with the ribs visibly moving up and down with the effort.  A cat in pain takes great effort to breath. Normally, you should not notice any increased respiratory effort.

3. Watch the body language. (We saw this before with the hunched back kitty.)

kitten in pain

Notice the abnormally extended and malpositioned hind legs.

kitten in pain holds pegs unnaturally

Close-up of unnatural leg positioning.

x-ray of broken pelvis in a kitten

Compare the x-ray to the kitten.

In this case, look at the hind legs.  This kitten is not relaxed in the animal hospital, she is barely moving at all.  The hind legs are extended and positioned in a wholly unnatural pose, especially for being in a stressful, unfamiliar environment.

This position is because of pain in the hind end, and a reduced ability to move.

4. Illogical purring and “kitten bread-making” indicate self-comforting, coping, trying to cope with pain.

Many, many people say,” But I thought purring meant the cat was happy.”  Same goes for the kneading with the front paws, reminiscent of the kneading a neonate performs at the nipple in order to simulate mother’s milk to flow.

Sometimes the Doc thinks maybe people aren’t as smart as the kittens. All meaning is contextual. If you see a kitten purring in an extremely stressful situation, or after 3 days of no food, after dragging herself up the porch to let her family know she needs help, this purring is a coping mechanism, like a person rocking themselves to sleep the first night in a strange new place.

Always, always assume there is pain if you have any suspicion there might be pain.  “I didn’t know” is a poor excuse, at best.

Always, always assume there is pain if you have any suspicion there might be pain.  And always assume there is pain if you have knowledge that something occurred that you or a reasonable person would find painful.  Like a gunshot wound, or auto trauma, or dog attack.  You may think this advice is obvious, but every day veterinarians run into people who either didn’t think it through or perhaps believe “I didn’t know” is an adequate excuse.

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37 Comments leave one →
  1. September 20, 2014 2:28 pm

    I rescued a stray about 5 or so days ago. I noticed off the bat that she seemed to stare a lot. She will sit and stare until i say something to her and sometimes even then she continues to stare.
    Today she started to kind of, I dunno, cry? Its a long meeeeeeeeeeeeeeew. Instead of her typical meow. I have not had the extra money to take her to see a vet and make sure she’s okay and now I feel guilty and worried.

  2. Lisa permalink
    August 10, 2014 8:55 pm

    Wow, you seriously have a ton of patience for all the people who look for veterinary advice instead of taking their animals to a vet. Sometimes its valid to look for advice but when the situation is obviously serious the animal needs a vet!! Hats off to you and thanks for all the wonderful information.

    • August 10, 2014 9:21 pm

      Lisa-
      I’m aiming my writing for people that want even more than their vet offers and more than they can typically find online in terms of a scientific explanation. Almost like a mini-class. I also think many vets are busy, hard to understand and the whole visit is stressful, so people are looking online for some understanding of what the heck just happened to them at the vet’s office!

      Admittedly, there are waaaaay too many people worrying and accessing online discussions instead of taking common sense action. It’s like people think a discussion or words are just as helpful to their pet as a vet visit. Which it’s not. They also replace money and valid work to get money for the pet’s use with worry. Worry and useless participation online will solve nothing.

      That’s a personality type that has surged to the forefront in recent years. That type of person takes 40-60 minutes at the vet office trying to get the vet to basically list everything that could be wrong before authorizing any tests at all. The they start arguing logically why they do or don’t think certain possibilities are real. It’s all b.s.! Then they let me know they have $1 in their pocket. I’m serious. They show their face in public, suck up a professional’s time, full-well knowing they have brought nothing of consequence to exchange for the time and concern I have offered them. And they show no shame! It is mind-boggling.

      So I try to stay professional and neutral and positive and helpful, within the limits of not actually practicing medicine online. Sometimes I wonder if I should just *yell* at people in the comments. I figure, the world is full of nastiness, we do not need any more of it.

      Thanks for reading. Feel free to join I. The conversation anytime,

      -Doc Truli

  3. Elena permalink
    August 6, 2014 11:09 pm

    My cat usually purrs and is happy but today i noticed that when she rubbed up against my legs (like she always does) when i went to pet her she did not purr but instead meowed (shes vocal but i did not sound like her meow) it did not sound like her normal meow it kinda sound like she was in distress or pain she then started to growl and bit me hard (she usually gives a warning bite that is soft) and she then hissed and walked away and laid on the floor (earlier she tried to jump on my loftt bed and fell on the metal laddder…. Also ever since shes been spayed she never let anyone touch her belly or pick her up again.) i dont know what is wrong with her but plz help im worried and my gut is telling me to go to the vet but im not sure if its just nothing or if its serious plz respond.

    • August 7, 2014 6:56 am

      She fell. Now she’s short-tempered and actually bit you! Go to the vet. At the very least, they can identify where she hurts, prescribe painkillers and you can ice it if it has been less than 24 hours.

  4. Nicole permalink
    April 17, 2014 9:51 pm

    My cat got really scared of a dog and climb Inbetween the porch and this metal rack thing and I’m not sure if the dog got to her but she as a bald spot now and try’s to walk as little as possible but when she stops she holds her paw up and she eats and drinks less than usual and she won’t go in the litter box she doesn’t pee on the floor or anything just sits on the be all day. she also as been throwing up quite a lot. She used to play with certain toys but she won’t play anymore I’m kind of scared she’s hurt.

    • April 19, 2014 5:19 pm

      Dear Nicole,
      Sounds like your cat is hurting. Veterinarians exist to help pain and suffering. A vet could really help your kitty.
      Yours,
      Doc Truli

  5. Megan Warner permalink
    December 29, 2013 6:37 pm

    My 8 month old male kitten might be in pain. When I pet him if he thinks I’m gonna touch his back hips he hisses and swats at me. At his last checkup he got a shot (in the same area by his back hips) and it hurt/scared him really bad. That’s been 2-3 weeks ago. He’s been real tense lately and everything I read said its because he hasn’t been neutered yet. But to me it seems like he’s hurt and he’s just defending himself from being touched cuz he knows it will hurt. He gets on my lap when I come home and purrs and kneads my stomach to relax himself but doesn’t want me to touch him( when he lets me it’s only the top of his head) I have a husband and my kitten hates him. Anytime he hears my husband or sees him he hisses and growls. Or runs and hides. I assume its because when we found Eetchey he was barely weened and my husband was always the one who bathed him and clipped his nails and he’s always afraid my husband will give him a bath. Do u think he’s in pain or is it just kitty hormones?

    • December 29, 2013 6:43 pm

      Probably not hormones. Could be fleas. They irritate intensely on the back by the tail. If it’s not fleas, i’d take him to the vet’s.

      Good Luck!
      -Doc Truli

  6. Michael permalink
    June 9, 2013 1:32 am

    Hi! My 4-year old kitty “Pepper” suddenly became very vocal (although the vocalizations aren’t desperate-sounding, she just “murmurs”- familiar sounds prior her estrus), became increasingly “attached” to us, and noticed her breathing rate went fast at times. She also seemed to be comfortable in one spot. But she’s eating,drinking, and defacating normally.We actually see the same signs before she goes into heat, could this be a call to see her vet?Please help

    • June 9, 2013 10:12 am

      Yes. Any significant behavior change is a call to see the vet. Cats can have remnant ovaries and actually be I. Heat, even if they have been spayed. Your vet can advise you.

      Good luck!

  7. Jeneine permalink
    April 12, 2013 1:27 am

    My cat is exactly like Sugar. Got out of the house, came back a month later, came back dragging his hind legs up the porch. We took him to the animal hospital, they took X-Rays, took blood/ urinary samples, gave IV, and found NOTHING wrong with him. Nothing wrong in his blood, x-rays, or urine. They had no idea what was wrong with him. They prescribed Buprenorphine. He is very boney. He is able to stretch his back legs, but can’t walk. He is able to lift his head, and crawl. He is able to urinate. It’s been 2 days since he’s stopped eating, he drinks a lot of water and kitten milk replacer. I now notice green/yellowish mucus coming out of his right nostril. Can you please help? What is wrong with him? I don’t want him suffering anymore.

  8. Rich p permalink
    August 26, 2012 11:44 am

    Can you help me. I took my cat to at least a dozen vet appointments and had every test possible done. yet nobody knows whats wrong! I am giving him a bi-weekly steroid shot for asthma but it doesn’t seem to help much. he still has labored breathing and weight loss and I don’t know if he’s in pain. he sits there breathing loudly with his eyes watering and half closed. any ideas?

    • August 27, 2012 6:26 am

      Dear Rich,
      Poor kitty! That sounds terrible! Perhaps your kitty
      Is still undiagnosed, in which case, I would seek a consultation with a board-certified veterinary cardiologist (they take care of lungs, too). Or perhaps the meds need to be changed. Again, see a (nother) specialist.

      Or maybe your kitty Dies not have the vital force left to respond well to the meds.

      Have you gone to a cardiologist?

      • Rich p permalink
        August 27, 2012 11:30 am

        I dont even know where a cardiologist would be. I might take him back in to have them do another x-ray to check for fluid in his lungs. I dont know what else to do. been to 3 different vets and they all say that everything has been tried..

      • August 28, 2012 7:09 am

        You can ask for a referral to a cardiologist.

        It is possible there is no specialist near you. Check http://www.acvim.org for listings of specialists to find one near you.

        Good luck!

    • Jessica permalink
      November 29, 2012 10:50 am

      check out corona virus on google look at the symptoms see if you notice the same symptoms, because this is how my kitten is acting also and she has corona virus, which is not good.

  9. sehrish permalink
    July 4, 2012 2:23 pm

    My cat having pelvic fracture,peeing pooping eating and drinking,but he still breath little fast and hiding in a curtain,he is scaring….but not walking only crawling,he is in fracture since ten days,how, much time to recover?what is the cause of his behavior,as m pampering him alot,loving him.

    • July 7, 2012 12:14 pm

      I tell my clients 6-8 weeks of strict cage rest. Movement will cause it to not heal. Behavior sounds like pain. Have you has your veterinarian assess him?

      • sehrish khan permalink
        July 7, 2012 4:21 pm

        Thanks for reply as m very much dprsd now,yeah he had his check up,but m from pakistan in our country here is very poor vet system,my vet is very exp and well known of pakistan and my bad luck as shes out of country now a days and she will be back after 20 july.

        My main concern is that he had his first stool after injury after 9 days,but now again its being day 3 no stool,hes urinatinf daily but i also notice some urine drop on his tail.hes eating and drinkg now he also trying to stand with support of wall,he stand fully.his tail is ok.but plz support me as i cnt bear any difficulty in him,i love him as my own kid,hes six years old male cat, my every thing,support me before 2 days i took him to my vet assistant he checked his bladder it was normal,he check his jaw area,and fever,that all was normal.

      • July 9, 2012 7:03 am

        You can soften his stool with fiber-type vegetables. Here in America we have pumpkin and winter squash like acorn and butternut squash. I don’t know what would be equivalent in Pakistan. Also fiber like psyllium husk 1/4 teaspoon (about 2cc ) in his food per day would help make it easier for him to move his bowels. Good luck! Many of my readers are from all over the world and we find a way to keep our companion pets happy.

      • sehrish khan permalink
        July 9, 2012 9:16 am

        Ok my concern after his first stool is there no chances of future difficulty any colon damage,any urinating blader problem,and he will fine soon,its being 14 days now,thanks for supporting,i also wana send u his xray pics,and his pic.how can i send u plz reply.i really thankful to you that you replying me.sehrishkhan620@yahoo.com
        I seriously want to send you the pic.

      • sehrish khan permalink
        July 9, 2012 2:20 pm

        Doc doc doc he has his stool again yuppyyyyyyyy…:-) but very hard and he did it very forcefuly but he did it yesssss….so is this positife sign?and but doc today he has passed just little urine i feed him great quantity of milk and 15ml water through sringe.i will take him tmrw to vet early in the morning reply reply reply

      • sehrish permalink
        July 9, 2012 3:19 pm

        Sorry sorry i knowits sound silly but m so excited he had his urine as well a big one heheh and also found enough stool while cleaning its seems all perfect m soooo happpyyyy sos much,:-)

  10. Ruby Anna Basco permalink
    March 6, 2012 9:39 am

    can you please help me?my kitten sarah is making a sound like crying or something. she hasnt been eating for 3 days and bowel movement is absent. what should i do?i called some vet clinics but its already close because its already late.tomorrow ill try to visit a vet.=(

    • March 11, 2012 8:54 am

      Why do people wait until the last minute to get help for their pets?

      -Doc Truli, Just wondering…

      • Lori permalink
        August 3, 2014 8:19 pm

        I think sometimes it’s wishful thinking, Doc. They don’t want to have to spend the money and hope they’re wrong that the animal needs a vet. I know I was getting very worried when my Fluffy didn’t eat for ONE day, and even though she started eating again the next day, her abnormal behavior was enough for me to take her to the vet, even with my very limited income. I’m glad I did, because she is sick, but hopefully will be better soon with the meds.

  11. Justine P. permalink
    November 10, 2011 12:07 am

    Hello. I am taking my kitten, Milo (about 4 months old), to the vet immediately because I have noticed some very strange behavior. A couple of days ago, she started this thing where if she is in a different room than me or my fiancée, she will start crying- loudly. As soon as we come in, she seems to be fine. Besides that, and peeing in the bath tub earlier (no trace of blood), that is the only sign of pain that she has shown. She was scratching at the side of the tub before she did it, like a litter box. It was early, stupidly, I didn’t put two and two together while it was happening, but I did call the vet immediately afterwards. Sometimes we come home to knocked over items, so of course, my biggest fear is that something fell on her. There is only a 3.5-4 hour time span in which nobody is home, but that is definitely enough time for her to get into trouble. She does not have a distant look in her face, she always looks right at us, she has been playing just like normal, eating, sleeping, peeing, pooping, everything! She is acting like her normal, hyper self! But it’s that crying that’s making me insane, I am so afraid that she is hurting. I made an appointment for Friday, due to work, but I can’t take this crying anymore, so I am going to see if they will take me tomorrow, forget work. She is not constantly crying, but it has been frequent- and she will stop as soon as she sees or hears somebody coming. She still lays down on all different positions, nothing strange. She was a bottle fed kitten, I’m wondering if she is just trying to get attention… I won’t wait to wait to find out though. Anyways, any advice that you might have for me would be greatly appreciated. These previous posts have helped me a lot, and I will most definitely keep these tips in mind. Thank you, and wish us luck tomorrow!

    • November 10, 2011 4:38 pm

      Good Luck with your appointment! Is your little girl spayed??? Just wondering…

  12. Nessa permalink
    November 8, 2011 5:59 am

    I have a kitten thats about 4-5 months old and she’s been drooling and sticking the tip of her tongue out at times for the past day and a half. She’s purring on and off and I have no idea what to do. I can’t get her to the vet because the only one I have near me I’ll need to make an appointment for. I don’t have any money and there isn’t a guaranty that my parents will pay for the visit. I’m really worried about her and I don’t know what to do.

    • November 8, 2011 8:20 am

      Dear Nessa,
      Did you consult with your parents before hitting the internet? Usually, your best resources in life are real people who care about you. If they say no to paying for the kitten’s care, they have their reasons. But I would suggest you consider asking them for help, as that is generally what parents are there for.

      Drooling and sticking the tongue out are abnormal – not normal – things for a kitten to do. Most vets will see you without an appointment, it’s called a”walk in” appointment, or in your case, possibly an emergency. The payment thing is a valid concern. Plus, in order for you to establish a valid veterinary-patient-client relationship with a veterinarian (at least in the United States), you must be at least 18 years old, because it is a legal understanding as well as a medial situation. So, if you are under 18, even if you were to have children of your own, etc, you need a legal adult to go with you to sign paperwork.

      Good Luck, find an adult in the physical world around you to help you and the kitten,
      Doc Truli

  13. Megan permalink
    August 20, 2011 5:38 am

    Thanks for this. As i write this, my kitten is suffering a really bad leg injury :( He’s finally fallen asleep, but i have to wait till 12 to take him to the vets :( xx

    • August 25, 2011 9:49 am

      Aw, Megan,
      How did it go at the vet’s?
      Yours,
      Doc Truli

  14. eeee permalink
    June 1, 2010 8:23 pm

    I have always thought that purring is as much a cause as an effect – that, inasmuch as a cat can think, the cat is thinking, “When I’m happy, I purr – therefore, if I purr, I’ll become happy.” It always surprises me to realize how many long-time cat owners don’t “get” this. (I wouldn’t be too surprised by non-cat-owners not twigging to this, but how do you have a cat, or multiple cats, for years, and not recognize when something’s wrong?) Thanks for a great post – I’ll be bookmarking it for future reference.

  15. May 8, 2010 5:19 pm

    Nice post

    • November 29, 2012 9:52 pm

      my lil bro kitten is pain today becuze my bro fell on him an the kitten has his bro an sis an he blaket that he loves he thinks its mama becuze its soft i waching him really close :(

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