Most cats enjoy being stroked on the back, except when they’re sick or injured. So, if your cat doesn’t want to be touched on her back, the chances are that she’s in physical discomfort.
Back pain in cats can be caused by psychological or physical factors. If the skin on your cat’s back ripples when you touch it, then she probably has anxiety or hyperesthesia (an obsessive-compulsive disorder). If your cat’s back feels stiff to the touch, this may be due to arthritis, injury or an infection of the spinal discs.
Back pain caused by anxiety or hyperesthesia can be treated by reducing stress in the household and changing the way you stroke your cat. However, more serious conditions must be treated by a vet to avoid spinal damage. Let’s assess the severity of your cat’s back pain.
How to Recognize Back Pain in Cats
Backache can manifest itself in different ways. As owners, we should pay attention to our cat’s pain responses so we can understand what’s causing the discomfort. For example, the following pain responses are caused by different types of medical conditions:
- Rippling – the skin on the cat’s back ripples and twitches involuntarily
- Stiffness in the Back or Neck – the cat is unable to move quickly or stretch out fully
- Flinching – the cat recoils (moves back suddenly) when her back is touched
How does your cat respond when you touch her back? Does she flinch? Does her skin start to ripple? Or does she feel stiff and lethargic? We’ll now explore which pain responses.
What Causes Back Pain in Cats?
Many different factors can cause back pain in cats. These include:
- Soft Tissue Injuries – A strain or sprain to the muscles, ligaments, or tendons surrounding the backbones. A cat with a soft tissue injury may appear stiff and flinch when stroked.
- Fear and Anxiety – If your cat always flinches when you touch her on the back, she may be anxious. Occasionally, cats can develop extreme bouts of anxiety.
- Arthritis – This is a painful joint condition that can sometimes affect the spine. Cat’s with arthritis tend to have a stiff neck and back that loosens up after stroking.
- Hyperesthesia – This is a hypersensitivity disorder that causes the cat’s back to ripple.
- Feline Osteodystrophy – Osteodystrophy is abnormal bone growth caused by genetics, renal disease or nutrient deficiencies. Symptoms include stiffness and a reluctance to move.
- Discospondylitis – This is a microbial infection that affects the spinal discs; it can cause extreme stiffness.
- Meningitis – A inflammation or infection of the meninges (the membranes that encase the brain and spinal cord). Meningitis can cause extreme stiffness in the neck and perhaps flinching as cats with this condition won’t want to be touched.
Back pain has causes ranging from injury to infection and even psychological factors, such as anxiety.
Can Feline Back Pain Be Treated?
In almost all cases, back pain can be treated successfully. Depending on the cause of the back pain, this may involve:
- Rest and Rehabilitation – You may need to limit your cat’s movement by keeping her confined for several weeks.
- Changing your Behavior – Depending on what’s causing the back pain, changing the way you handle and stroke your cat may improve her symptoms.
- Changing their Environment – You may need to make some changes to your cat’s environment to speed up healing and prevent issues from happening in the future. For example, changing the temperature of your home or a different cat bed might help.
- Medication – This may include anti-inflammatories, antibiotics, and pain relief.
Because so many factors can cause back pain, a vet’s diagnosis is usually required.
Back Injuries in Cats
Soft tissue injuries are not uncommon in cats, though they are more likely to occur in the legs. A soft tissue injury can be a muscle strain, a torn ligament, or a sore tendon.
If your cat flinches or moves away when you try to touch her back, this might indicate a soft tissue injury. Other symptoms include:
- Struggling to get comfortable when sitting or lying down
- Swelling or warmth on the back or neck
- A reluctance to walk around or jump
- Spending lots of time alone
Back injuries in cats can be caused by falling off fences, worktops or other high surfaces. Soft tissue injuries can be treated with prescribed pain relief and keeping your cat confined for 1-6 weeks.
Cat Scared When You Touch Her Back
Severe anxiety can sometimes be mistaken for physical pain. If your cat suddenly flinches when you touch her back, she might be in fear rather than in pain.
If you catch your cat by surprise, this can be particularly frightening. But how can you know if a cat is in pain or fear? Besides having wide-eyes, a frightened cat may:
- Swish/puff up its tail
- Become frozen on the spot like a statue
- Arch her back
- Lower her head
- Have a glazed-over expression
- Spit and hiss
- Urinate or defecate outside the litter box
- Try to run away
Cats can develop anxiety for many different reasons. Perhaps they have had a traumatic past, or maybe they don’t feel safe in their current home. If left to fester, severe anxiety can cause a condition called hyperesthesia (see below).
If your cat’s fur ripples when you touch them on the back, they may have a condition called hyperesthesia. Hyperesthesia is a hypersensitivity disorder that can cause the skin on the back to twitch and ripple uncontrollably.
It is the muscle underneath the skin that is being overstimulated. The ripples may be triggered by stroking, grooming, stressful situations or temperature changes.
In addition to twitching skin, cats will usually experience additional symptoms such as:
- Running around
- Frantic grooming (grooming can become compulsive even after the episode has passed)
- Uncontrollable urination
- Excessive meowing
- Flinching / potentially fitting
Episodes tend to last just a couple of minutes, but they can frequently occur throughout the day. Scientists do not entirely agree on the actual cause of hyperesthesia.
Specialists at Cornell University consider it be a form of epilepsy. However, they also believe that anxiety and obsessive-compulsiveness may play a role in this condition.
To be specific, cats who are always in a state of fear or feel pushed out of their territory may develop hyperesthesia.
Can I Stroke a Cat with Hyperesthesia?
If your cat is showing the signs of hyperesthesia, you might wonder if it’s safe to stroke her – or kinder to leave her alone. Some cats with anxiety/hyperesthesia will appreciate human contact, but you should follow these tips to make sure you are not aggravating the condition:
- Stroke your cat elsewhere on the body as this might be less triggering. For example, your cat might enjoy rubbing her face against your hand as this allows her to mark her territory. Try hovering your hand near to your cat and let her rub up to you in any way she chooses. That way, you’ll get a sense of where she likes to be stroked.
- Be very gentle with your strokes. Cats are only small, so you don’t need to apply the same amount of pressure that you would if you were hugging a person. Try soft, gentle strokes using only your fingers or just a small section of your hand.
- Sit down with your cat for several minutes before you go to stroke her. This will stop her from becoming startled.
- If your cat has an episode of anxiety/hyperesthesia and starts frantically scratching her back, don’t try to intervene at this point – allow this flareup to run its course.
However, you should take steps to treat the hyperesthesia. Left untreated, it can lead to skin wounds, weight loss, and a poor quality of life.
According to Cornell University, hyperesthesia can be successfully treated through behavior change rather than medication. Read on to find out how to help a very anxious cat.
How to Handle an Anxious Cat
If the skin on your cat’s back ripples uncontrollably, she probably has anxiety and hyperesthesia. Cats tend to get anxious if they are living in an unsuitable environment or they have to fight for resources. To treat anxiety and hyperesthesia, consider the following interventions:
1) Own Personal Space
If you have more than one cat, make sure each cat has its own food bowl, water bowl, litter box, and sleeping spot/bed. Try to spend some time alone with each cat each day.
2) Increased Interaction
If a cat feels bored or under-stimulated, this can lead to anxiety. As a minimum, try to give your cat attention for 3 x 10 minutes each day.
If your cat doesn’t like being stroked on the back, you can try stroking her elsewhere on the body (see above) or offer her some toys to play with instead. Toys needn’t be expensive; cats enjoy playing with balls of wool, old cardboard tubes, and boxes.
3) Small and Regular Meals
If it is practical, feed your cat 4-6 small meals per day rather than 1-2 big ones. Also, try to stick to the same feeding routine each day, so she doesn’t have to worry about getting her next meal.
You could also try a specialist feeding bowl that forces the cat to search for her food. This helps to prevent boredom and encourages an anxious cat to eat at a reasonable pace.
4) Keep Rival Cats Away
If you have an indoor cat, she might feel threatened by animals she sees through the windows. Use curtains to block any windows that look out onto the garden, and always stop other cats from entering your home.
5) Pheromone Device
Try a pheromone plug-in device. These plug-in devices release an artificial substance that mimics the cat’s pheromones. When cats scent mark (by rubbing their cheeks against household surfaces), they release pheromones.
The idea is that these artificial pheromones help a cat to feel more secure in their environment. If you don’t want to buy a plug-in device, you could try gently wiping a clean cloth against your cat’s cheeks, and then rubbing it on surfaces around your home to deposit the scent.
Spinal Arthritis in Cats
Arthritis is a condition that affects the joints, and it is common in senior cats. Arthritic cats often feel stiff and sluggish when you go to stroke them, but the stiffness eases up after a couple of minutes.
According to Cats Protection, additional symptoms include:
- An inability to move around with ease – a reluctance to jump
- Unable to use the litter box
- Moody – not wanting to play or cuddle
- Swelling around the joints
- A stiffness that loosens up after physical activity
- Symptoms that worsen in damp or cold weather.
If your cat has arthritis, the symptoms can be alleviated with specialist anti-inflammatory drugs prescribed by a vet.
Glucosamine or chondroitin sulfate are also thought to help alleviate the symptoms of arthritis and perhaps even repair damaged cartilage.
What is Feline Osteodystrophy?
This condition is quite rare but worth mentioning here because it can cause severe and irreversible damage to the spinal cord if not treated early.
Feline osteodystrophy essentially means an abnormal growth of the bones. It can cause intense pain, deformity, stiffness, and a reluctance to jump or walk. According to Wiley, the risk factors for developing feline osteodystrophy are as follows:
- Genetics – Siamese, Burmese and Scottish Fold cats are more likely to have this condition.
- Diet – A diet low in calcium, iron, and vitamin D is a risk factor, particularly in kittens. Siamese cats are very picky about their food, so this may partially explain the high numbers of osteodystrophy in Siamese cats. Cats who are fed only scraps may also suffer these deficiencies.
Treatment involves dietary changes (increased calcium, iron and vitamin D intake) and confinement for several weeks. Scottish fold cats with this condition will often need surgery.
If treatment is provided as soon as the symptoms arise, the outlook is typically good. So, if your cat is stiff, struggling to walk, and unable to stretch out naturally, you should take them to the vet immediately.
Discospondylitis and Back Pain in Cats
This relatively rare condition is caused by a microbial infection that enters the cat’s spinal discs. It could be caused by a bacterial or fungal infection from another animal or needles not being appropriately cleaned during inoculation.
In addition to back pain, cats with discospondylitis may have:
- Loss of appetite & weight loss
- Potential paralysis
According to Science Direct, treatment involves an antimicrobial treatment, followed by pain relief. Also, cats must usually be confined for several weeks to promote healing and prevent re-infection.
Feline Meningitis and Stiff Neck
Cats who feel unusually stiff around the neck area may have meningitis. If your cat finds it hard to twist her neck, this could be a red flag. Meningitis is an inflammation or infection of the meninges – the membranes that encase the cat’s central nervous system.
As you are probably aware, meningitis is a severe condition that requires immediate treatment. Additional symptoms include:
- Depression/low mood
- Low blood pressure
- Oversensitivity to light
- Weight loss & loss of appetite
Meningitis can lead to brain damage and other secondary infections if left untreated. A dose of antibiotics, rest, and relaxation can work wonders if the infection is caught early enough.
If you suspect your cat is in pain, first try to establish what the pain looks like. Is your cat flinching? Is her skin rippling, or does her back feel very stiff?
Skin rippling is often associated with psychological factors (i.e., anxiety, hyperesthesia), whereas stiffness is more commonly associated with injury and infection. Flinching (moving back) when touched can be a symptom of both psychological and physical conditions.
If you suspect your cat has hyperesthesia or anxiety, you may be able to manage this condition on your own. To be specific, be gentler when stroking your cat and allow her to take the lead.
Moreover, minimize all sources of stress in the household and try a pheromone plug-in to help your cat feel more secure.
If your cat feels stiff when you stroke her on the back, you should visit your vet immediately. This is all the more urgent if you see additional symptoms such as a fever, reduced appetite, or vomiting.
If you visit the vet sooner rather than later, this will help to prevent secondary infections and irreversible damage to the spinal cord.