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Behavior Changes and Pain in Aging Cats

Sam the CatAs 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.

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 healthy cat for longer than a few minutes, and you are likely to see him/her cleaning some part of the 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 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 “lion cut” done to make the torso hair short and easy to keep clean. This can be done at our hospital under light, gentle sedation to make the process less traumatic for your cat.

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. Some 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. 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 elimination 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.

Cat LitterboxWe are now recommending that owners of geriatric cats (and all cats for that matter!) purchase a storage container at least 18″ X 24″ in size and 12″ in height. Using pruning shears or box cutters cut a “door” in one end to allow your cat to walk in usually leaving about 4-5″ in the base to retain the litter. This extra room allows the cat to walk in, turn around easily and then eliminate comfortably, even standing if needed. The tall sides present urine from escaping the box which makes everyone happier!

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. We often see senior cats in our practice that resent being handled in the examination room. Common comments we hear from their 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.).”
  • “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.”

Dr. Silvia Rodriguez with CatAlthough 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. In any of the above scenarios, pain should be on the list of considerations. Finally, the good news is that we now have many things that we can do for the elderly arthritic cat. Oral glucosamine/chondroitin products come in tasty powders and treats. Adequan, an injectable joint-sparing medication can be given at home and is both effective and free of side effects. Pain-blocking medications can be used safely in our feline patients and even anti-inflammatory medications can be given at low doses to ease the discomfort of arthritic joints.

If you have concerns about pain causing changes in the behavior of your elderly cat, Give us a call to schedule an examination with one of our veterinarians or voice your concerns when you are in for a scheduled wellness examination. Our feline patients 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.

This article is based on material written by: Robin Downing, DVM, CVPP, CCRP, DAAPM

© Copyright 2012 LifeLearn Inc. Used and/or modified with permission under license.