Pain is written on a cat’s face, U of C researchers find



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Cats may be notoriously aloof, but their facial expressions are giving away their inner pain, says a University of Calgary researcher.

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In fact, the scientist and his colleagues at the University of Montreal are confident enough in what felines’ furry grimaces tell us, they’ve crafted a handy photo manual into reading cat angst.

That six months of research at the Quebec university involving about 50 cats with pre-existing illnesses will help veterinarians better detect pain and provide relief that’s usually better-delivered to dogs, said Dr. Daniel Pang, associate professor of anesthesia and analgesia.

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“Veterinarians have had a hard time measuring pain, especially in cats,” said Pang of the U of C.

“Something that works faster, it’s what we haven’t had.”

That feline 0-2 grimace scale measures the level of expression in cats’ muzzle tension, whiskers change, head and ears position and orbital tightening in their eyes.

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Ginger relaxes on the examination table at a lab in the University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine.
Ginger relaxes on the examination table at a lab in the University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. Photo by Azin Ghaffari /Azin Ghaffari/Postmedia

“What people find easiest is looking at changes to their eyes, but you can’t look at just one thing, there are other indicators,” said Pang.

For instance, said the researcher, ears rotated outwards signal the presence of pain, as do squinted eyes.

Whiskers bunched together also denoted discomfort, according to the guide.

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Cats that were used in the research had been suffering such maladies as trauma, intestinal conditions and skin problems, said Pang.

Resulting pain medication given the feline patients further confirmed the pain scales’ hunches, he added.

“Because our scales worked well for all those things, we’re pretty confident they’ll work well all-round,” he said.

Heavier shedding of fur, he said, could signal stress or a skin condition, “but isn’t as specific.”

As he explained the findings, which are part of a student’s PhD project three years in the making, Pang caressed an orange domestic long hair named Barney which leaned into his touch while a female named Ginger looked on.

“They’re both pretty happy cats,” said Pang.

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That research was built on studies done on the facial features of cats’ traditional prey — mice and rats.

“Everything we learned from the rodent work, we kind of switched out that species and adapted it to cats,” said Pang, who co-authored the study with Dr. Paulo Steagall and lead author Marina Evangelista, PhD student at the University of Montreal.

“There are similar facial features in horses, cattle and sheep.”

A dog’s body language has always been more expressive and easier to interpret, said Pang.

“They’re easier to read and we’re more used to being around them, and cats don’t care (about being expressive),” he said.

How useful the scale is to cat owners isn’t quite as certain but should theoretically be beneficial, said Pang.

“Cat owners are great because they know their cat so well when they see a change, they tend to spot it anyway,” he said.

Interpreting the meaning of that change, Pang added, might not be so easy.

[email protected]

on Twitter: @BillKaufmannjrn

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