What about chronic pain?
While most cats will likely be exposed to an acutely painful procedure, such as surgery, at some point in their lives, it's
not an everyday occurrence. But for some cats, chronic pain can be. From degenerative joint disease to cancer, certain conditions
can negatively affect a cat's behavior and activity level and, as such, managing chronic pain has become a much greater concern
for today's pet owners and veterinarians.
Degenerative joint disease is one of the most common sources of chronic pain in cats but it can also be one of the more difficult
conditions to accurately assess. Although pet owners may notice subtle signs of their cat's discomfort at home, such as reluctance
to jump or a slower, stiffer gait, it can be tricky for veterinarians to make a clinical assessment based on examination alone.
"Cats are smaller and have a natural agility," Robertson says. "It can be difficult to elicit pain in cats or even perform
a physical exam at all. They often don't give as much information as dogs."
Because of this, it's critical to enlist the help of the pet owner to get a true sense of the cat's level of pain and discomfort.
Robertson recommends developing an owner questionnaire to evaluate the cat's normal behaviors—such as walking, playing and
jumping—at home. Find out if the cat is developing coping strategies to deal with pain, such as jumping first onto a chair
or table, rather than jumping directly onto a countertop or taking stairs one at a time.
Cats don’t have to suffer. A stimulus-rich environment that includes playing and petting can prove to be a powerful distraction
to chronic pain.
Changes in the cat's elimination habits should also be part of the discussion. Many cats who experience chronic pain will
avoid covering their urine or feces with litter, or may refuse to climb into a litter box altogether. What some pet owners
may confuse as inappropriate urination may actually be a sign that the cat is experiencing pain due to degenerative joint
disease or another chronic condition.
Assessing quality of life
Robertson points out that in humans, pain is self-reporting—we state how we feel. But in animals, pain is what the pet owner
or veterinarian says it is. The same is true for quality of life. Quality of life in pets is relative and often measured by
the amount of pain we believe the animal is in. But pain isn't the only factor to be considered.
In a study conducted by B. Duncan X. Lascelles, BSc, BVSc, PhD, DECVS, DACVS, professor of small animal surgery at North Carolina
State University, it was hypothesized that quality of life in cats was predominantly linked to mobility. However, 60 percent
of pet owners in the study reported that habits such as engaging in play or being receptive to petting were of far greater
importance in assessing their pet's quality of life than mobility alone.
Based on the results of studies such as this, Robertson emphasizes the importance of managing chronic pain through environmental
enrichment as well as traditional medical intervention in order to improve a cat's quality of life. A stimulus-rich environment
that includes playing and petting can prove to be a powerful distraction to chronic pain, Robertson states. And that can make
a huge difference.
"Cats sitting in a barren environment will focus on the pain," she says. "But in a highly enriched environment, they will
focus on things other than the pain."