Why do cats mask pain and discomfort?
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Why do cats mask pain and discomfort?

Cats that are hurt or that feel unwell tend to display only very subtle cues that something is amiss, and unless there is something obviously physically wrong with your cat that they can’t hide such as a wound or a limp, it can be very challenging for their owners to identify when something is wrong.

Dogs, on the other hand, wear their hearts on their sleeves in this respect, and will usually seek out their favourite person when they are feeling ill, in order to help them to feel better. The fact that cats tend to mask pain and discomfort means that sometimes when we do identify an illness or problem, it has already become rather serious or far along – but why do cats do this in the first place?

If you are wondering why cats mask pain, or what the motivation is that makes cats choose to hide or stay away from home when they feel unwell, we will attempt to answer these questions in this article.

Read on to learn why cats try to hide illness and mask pain and discomfort.

Cats are not highly social animals

Whilst humans and dogs are social animals that naturally seek out the presence and company of others of the same species and that tend to prefer to live in extended family groups and cooperatives of unrelated individuals, the same is not true for cats.

Wild cats, from which our own domestic cats evolved, are largely solitary animals that only come together to mate, and that usually, live independently even of their own offspring once they have grown up enough to be able to fend for themselves and establish their own territories.

When we as humans feel ill or are in pain, whilst it can be nice to have someone to tend to us and help us to recover, we also generally prefer to be left alone and not hassled or interfered with to a large extent – and for cats, who naturally like their own company anyway, this effect becomes even more acute.

Predator versus prey

Cats hold an interesting position in the food chain, being as they are both keen natural hunters, and also, the natural prey for some larger animals.

Animals that aren’t at the top of the food chain and that might make a potential meal for a larger animal have evolved a whole spectrum of ways to avoid being made into a snack, such as avoiding the territories of predators, trying to leave no traces of themselves in their environment (such as by burying waste) and by always keeping a wary eye out for danger.

A cat that is ill or injured will know that they are more vulnerable to attack during this time, and that showing weakness is more likely to make them a target for potential predators.

This makes them try to mask their pain or any other signs that they might be feeling subpar, and in some cases, may lead to your cat not coming home as they prefer to find a safe bolthole to hide out and wait until they feel better and more capable of defending and protecting themselves.

Vulnerability in the wild

If your cat becomes sick or injured when away from home, they might decide that making the trip back (even if home is nearby) will place them at risk or make them vulnerable – they may be unable to recognise a potential hazard or predator or be less able to defend themselves.

If your cat is ill and gets out, they may again find somewhere to hide out, or if they hurt themselves outside of the home, they may simply lay low rather than chance the trip back.

Avoiding further pain or distress

If you know or suspect that your cat is ill or injured, the first thing you will want to do is examine them, and then potentially put them in a carrier to take them to the vet. None of these things will be pleasant for a cat that is feeling unwell, and even though it is necessary in order to help them to recover, these are all things that your cat is likely to want to avoid.

If your cat seems to be acting strangely or if you think something is wrong but aren’t sure if your cat should go to the vet, it is a good idea to confine them to the house until you make a decision either way, to prevent your cat from wandering off to wait for recovery.

Additionally, sometimes simply some rest and time to recuperate is all your cat will need – such as if they have jarred or hurt a leg in a minor way, or have eaten something that didn’t agree with them but that wasn’t poisonous – and so your cat may simply wish to be ignored and left alone to do so.

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