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Cats’ faces can reveal hidden pain: University of Calgary study

Cats’ faces can reveal hidden pain: U of C study
A study out of the University of Calgary shows that a cat's facial expressions can tell us a lot about how the animal is feeling. The new information has helped researchers develop a better way for vets to treat sick felines. Tiffany Lizée explains.

Felines are known to hide their pain and as studies show, that can result in cats being under-treated and prescribed fewer pain killers than dogs.

New research from the University of Calgary has proved a feline’s face can speak volumes about the pain they’re experiencing.

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This information has helped a team of veterinary researchers build a scale to assess a cat’s facial expressions and determine how much pain it is feeling.

The researchers hope this new tool will help veterinarians and cat owners identify and treat cats experiencing pain more efficiently and effectively.

Dr. Daniel Pang published a paper in Scientific Reports about the Feline Grimace Scale, a fast, easy way to help determine how much pain a cat is feeling.
Dr. Daniel Pang published a paper in Scientific Reports about the Feline Grimace Scale, a fast, easy way to help determine how much pain a cat is feeling. Courtesy: Riley Brandt/University of Calgary

Dr. Daniel Pang is a professor of anesthesia and analgesia at the University of Calgary and co-author of the study. His previous work on a grimace scale for rats helped develop the Feline Grimace Scale.

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“Now we have something so you walk up to the cat, look at it and you make your assessment within seconds,” Pang said.

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The Feline Grimace Scale measures pain by how the cat positions its ears, head, and whiskers, whether its eyes are open or closed, and muzzle tension.

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“All of these things reflect whether there’s tension in the face,” said Pang.

University of Calgary veterinary clinics already have pain scoring scales for cats, but Pang said they can be time-consuming and are often unreliable.

“Veterinarians always say the same thing: they are unsure how best to assess pain, and they’re not comfortable doing it because they don’t feel they have the right assessment tools,” Pang said.

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University of Calgary
University of Calgary University of Calgary

The new scale uses five facial indicators: head, ears, eyes, whiskers and muzzle.

“All of these things reflect whether there’s tension in the face,” said Pang.

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Researchers hope veterinarians can quickly asses pain by observing if the cats’ ears are flattened and rotated outward, eyes are squinted, whiskers are bunched together, as well as if they’re showing a tense muzzle and lowered head.

The cat is then rated on a scale of zero to two: zero (no signs of pain), one (moderate signs) or two (obvious signs).

University of Calgary
University of Calgary University of Calgary

Researchers also determined a threshold score to help veterinarians determine if pain medication should be considered.

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