cat has pain at base of tail
Cat Health and Wellness

Why is My Cat in Pain When Touched on Back?

Conditions such as arthritis, trauma, injury, and internal and external diseases can be painful when your cat is touched on the back. With a spinal cord and nerves extending from the base of the head to the base of the tail, various medical conditions may arise.

Monitoring your cat’s sounds and movements is crucial. While it is unwise to overreact to every movement or sound your cat makes, if signs of discomfort when you touch your cat’s back have become a normal occurrence then you should contact your vet without delay.

In this guide, we will explore the core reasons why cats may experience back pain, the most common symptoms, and what you can expect once your cat is in the care of a vet.

Does My Cat Have Back Problems?

Most cats will experience a back issue at some point in their lives. A cat’s back is naturally sensitive to the touch. This is why pain in the back region can become even more pronounced due to even the slightest of touches.

Although cats are excellent at masking pain, if your cat meows in a “howling” manner, hisses or displays a strong vocalization when you touch its back, this is a sign that something is badly wrong.

  • As a way to potentially locate your cat’s back pain, you can place your hand on your cat’s back and gently squeeze. You do need to be careful not to get bitten because a cat’s bite can lead to infection. Working your way down the entire back to the back of the tail, squeeze the back ever so slightly and monitor your cat’s behavior and sounds. While you should never attempt to self-diagnose your cat’s ailment, you can identify the area of concern. This can be valuable if veterinary care is required. You may find that your cat’s problem is located in an area that is no larger than an inch.

What are the Causes of Feline Back Pain?

Back pain can be caused by anything, which is why it is often hard to work out the real cause of the problem. It can even be difficult for a vet to reach a final verdict without extensive medical tests being performed.

Excluding all of the rare possibilities, the primary causes of back pain include injury (trauma), disease, disc issues or arthritis and muscle inflammation. These groups comprise a host of sub-issues that can include cancer, kidney disease, nerve impairment, and constipation.

How do you know when a cat is in pain?

1) Injury and Trauma

From kittens to senior cats, injury and trauma to the back can be a common occurrence. If your cat has hit its back, had something fall on its back, twisted its back awkwardly, etc., pain in the lower or upper back is the likely outcome.

Unless medically diagnosed and treated, the pain will worsen and the underlying problem will become more severe.

Notable issues that can lead to this problem include…

  • Fracture
  • Nerve damage
  • Dislocation
  • Injury to tissues around the spine
  • Bruising
  • Flesh wound

Caused by constant pressure on the joints and bones as well as significant bone trauma, a condition known as spondylosis deformans can develop over time. This ailment is characterized by the growth of bones spurs on the vertebra of a cat’s spine.

Although a non-inflammatory condition, the symptoms (noted below) can be excruciating for your cat.

  • Bone growth (spurs) that can be felt when touching your cat’s back
  • Pain on or near the spur development
  • Back stiffness
  • Inability to move in a fluid motion (restricted movements)

A vet will have to perform a detailed physical examination of your cat before making a final diagnosis. Your vet will likely draw blood, conduct a urinalysis, and run a complete disease profile check to eliminate other issues, such as cancer.

Providing your vet with a detailed history of your cat’s health can also shed some light on the issue. Listing the various incidents that your cat has been involved in could help your vet to understand what has led to the development of this condition.

Easily visible on an x-ray image, spurs can be seen in detail. If spondylosis deformans is left untreated, the condition can cause bony growths to develop in the space between each vertebra.

  • If spur growths are pressing on spinal nerves, damaging tissue, and causing severe pain surgery may become a necessity. If the spur growth has not reached this point, your cat will be treated on an outpatient basis and given pain medication to ease any discomfort.

2) Disease

Various skin diseases and infections can cause back pain. Internal conditions, such as kidney disease, can also be a reason for severe back discomfort. Kidney disease is one of the most common causes of chronic lower back pain in cats.

Muscle diseases can also cause a great deal of pain along the back reaching from the base of the neck to the base of the tail. Inflammation and the infection of soft tissues can lead to severe pain during casual touching or a petting session with your cat.

cat sensitive hindquarters

One of the most unfortunate causes of a cat’s back pain is cancer. Nerve roots, soft tissues, and cancer of the vertebrae can result in pain in the back and neck area. It is not uncommon for pain to radiate throughout the spine making the entire back sensitive to touch.

  • While internal factors are more difficult to locate, skin infections can be found through texture. If you come across a patch of skin that feels different or features ripples, blisters, etc., your cat’s discomfort could be due to an infection or skin disease. Changes in the skin and the pain it leads to can be the result of a flesh wound caused by trauma or a bite. If your cat was involved in an altercation, back pain could be due to a flesh wound that has become infected.

3) Intervertebral Disc Disease

Similar to humans, a cat can experience damaged discs. Whether bulging, herniated or part of a larger degenerative condition, poor disc health can cause a serious issue. These concerns grow as a cat gets older and moves toward senior status.

One disease that can have adverse consequences is intervertebral disc disease (IVDD). The condition is severe and can potentially result in paralysis if not diagnosed quickly.

Caused by the bulging or bursting of vertebrae into the small space within the spinal cord, IVDD causes the displaced discs that press against spinal nerves. This can result in partial or permanent nerve damage and severe pain.

  • IVDD is defined by two types. Often originating in the neck area, Type 1 involves the outer layer of discs becoming hard. This hardening allows the discs to fail easier when compressed. The act of jumping and landing hard can cause a disc to herniate thus forcing particles inward and therefore pressing on the spinal cord. Type 1 is often associated with trauma rather than a life of activity (age) playing a factor. With a Type II scenario, the discs do not burst but bulge. This process occurs over a long period of time. This results in the disc (or discs) bulging out and pressing against spinal nerves and the spinal cord.

The primary symptoms of IVDD may include but are not limited to…

  • Lack of activity and the unwillingness to jump or land from a high distance
  • Weakness in the rear legs, but this shouldn’t be confused with arthritis
  • Odd behavior (anxiety)
  • Crying in pain (Howling and loud meows)
  • Muscle spasms, including ripples down the neck and back
  • Reduced activity and lack of appetite
  • Loss of bladder and bowel control (Nerve damage)
  • Hunching posture when standing, walking, and sitting

While every symptom is important and is worthy of note, some issues are worse than others and require immediate care. This is notably true as spinal nerve compression reaches the stage where limb, bladder, and bowel functions are compromised.

If nerve impulses begin to fail due to compression your cat may not be able to walk. Additionally, eliminations may take place at any time because your cat can no longer control the situation. Emergency care is essential as nerve compression has reached a severe level.

4) Arthritis and Muscle Inflammation

Chronic arthritis and muscle inflammation lead to back stiffness and pain. While your cat may not make audible sounds of discomfort, coping with arthritis and a sore back can be difficult.

Although arthritis is not defined medically as a product of old age, many times, a cat’s joints fall victim to natural wear and the aging process. Once the cartilage between joints begins to deteriorate, your cat will be at risk of joint pain and arthritis. This can occur in all joints throughout your cat’s body. Issues with the rear legs and back are the areas that are most commonly troubled by this condition.

why does my cat meow every time i touch her?

If you are concerned about your cat’s back stiffness and pain, we encourage you to consult your vet. If arthritis and muscle inflammation is the diagnosis, some treatments and supplements can ease your cat’s discomfort and promote cartilage growth.

What are the Symptoms of Back Pain in Cats?

Although symptoms vary based on the cause of the discomfort, there are specific symptoms to look out for as they are often intertwined regardless of the ailment.

While an audible response to touching can be a red flag that something is not right, most cats are good at masking any pain. It is possible for a cat to go weeks, months or years with chronic discomfort while hiding it the entire time.

Look for these symptoms, either individually or collectively, if you suspect your cat has a painful back…

  • Changes in posture while walking, sitting, standing, etc. If your cat is favoring something, subtle changes can be a clue.
  • An upward curve in your cat’s back may reflect a certain degree of back pain. Your cat may position its back in a specific manner as a means of alleviating pressure.
  • Cats can hide pain, but they are unable to hide physical bumps, bulges, ripples, etc. If you see or feel that your cat’s spine is unusual, you should consult your vet ASAP.
  • Stiff cats have stiff movements. While this can easily be chalked up as old age if you notice stiff movements in senior cats, younger cats with stiff movements often indicate poor joint health.
  • Audible sounds with touched on the back. This symptom is one of the more obvious hallmarks of back pain. Some cat’s do not hide all of their secrets. Audible cries and moans are for your attention, so look out for these signals.
  • A cat avoids your touch.
  • Swelling of the back and flesh wounds.
  • Lack of energy
  • Coordination issues. Examples include drunk walking, delayed responses, etc.
  • Hot to the touch
  • A lack of appetite

When Should You Consult a Vet?

Because your cat will never be able to let you know the extent of the issue, you must treat every significant issue with concern. You should always avoid self-diagnosing your cat, especially a cat that has otherwise been in good health. If your healthy cat is exhibiting back problems, then something has occurred internally or externally.

While most back concerns are not severe, some can be fatal if the underlying cause is due to the development of a tumor or is the byproduct of infection. You should always seek the expert opinion of a vet if your cat’s behavior has changed significantly.

How is a Back Injury or Disorder Diagnosed and Treated?

A series of physical examinations will be performed by your vet. Provide your vet with a list of your cat’s symptoms and recent behaviors.

Extensive blood work, X-rays, CT scans, MRI scans, etc., may be required to find out the exact cause of your cat’s back pain. Neurological exams may also be performed to detect conditions that may be affecting your cat’s spinal nerves.

In many cases, an exam followed by prescription drugs can resolve the issue within a few days or weeks. However, more significant conditions may require hospitalization, surgery, and medication. Long-term therapy may also be introduced, if needed.

What is Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome?

Affecting cats of all life stages, hyperesthesia is defined as a behavioral outburst where a cat will “go crazy” after your touch or pet the lumbar region of the lower back.

Is feline Hyperesthesia syndrome fatal?

The symptoms are as follows…

  • Intense switching of the tail
  • Wide eyes with dilated pupils
  • Intense focus
  • Aggressive scratching of the body with the rear paws
  • Frantic running around your home or living space
  • Ripples in the skin of the back

The Cornell University Feline Health Center has stated that other symptoms may include salivation, howling (loud vocalization), and bowel and bladder elimination on the spot. Cornell also notes that this behavior, as well as the symptoms previously listed, are a bit of a mystery. An obsessive-compulsive disorder could be the cause while there is another school of thought that points to a seizure disorder.

The cause and effect of hyperesthesia are not clearly understood. Nervous system conditions, skin disorders, muscle inflammation, and pinched nerves and slipped discs have all be grouped in many discussions and studies.

While hyperesthesia remains a mystery, what is known is that an episode only lasts for less than 30 seconds. What is even more interesting is that the cat often returns to its previous state after an episode and may even fall asleep as if nothing ever happened.

Diagnosis and Treatment of Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome

Cats who have hyperesthesia syndrome are primarily diagnosed after repeated events have occurred. While the condition is a mystery, there is no mistaking the visual of an outburst. Anxiety reduction, taking place on multiple levels, is often the treatment for hyperesthesia syndrome.

Introducing a schedule that involves regular feeding and playtimes may keep your cat on task, sharp, and free of worry. Overstimulation (back scratching) can often light the fuse that can trigger an episode.

In some cases, a vet may introduce mood stabilizing drugs in addition to anti-seizure medications.

Dr. de Lahunta, who is an emeritus professor of anatomy at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, notes that hyperesthesia is not a serious condition unless the cat is harmed during an outburst. Infection due to scratching is a risk that is pointed out by the doctor.

Although back pain is common in cats, it should never be ignored or dismissed. There is a crucial difference between pain emerging from a back issue and pain in the back that is from a disease. As a reminder, kidney and bladder disease can occur due to back pain.

You should take your cat to the vet for a checkup every 6-12 months. This can safeguard you against the fear of potential health issues while also helping your cat to get the treatment it may need to fend off an underlying health problem.