Little scientific research has been done into how cats experience headaches. However, much of what we know about how and why humans experience headaches also applies to domesticated house cats.
Cats do get headaches, but it not easy to tell when they occur. A cat will hide its pain and seclude itself where it feels safe and secure. The causes of headaches in cats include dehydration, trauma, and a loss of appetite.
Treating feline headaches involves providing a cool, quiet, and dark place where a cat can recover in peace. Offering food and water is also beneficial. If a headache persists or other worrisome symptoms arise, you should consult a vet.
Types of Headaches in Cats
Cats do get headaches, but we don’t notice them because of how cats react to pain. There is also the fact that humans can communicate when they’re in pain, but cats can’t. So, a cat’s instinct is always to conceal pain.
A basic definition that encompasses the many types of headaches in cats is a pain in any region of the head. This pain can vary in severity, locality, and duration. We can deduce the type of headache by observing the symptoms. Headaches can be broken into two categories:
- Primary headaches: These are harmless, although painful, but aren’t a symptom of another health issue.
- Secondary headaches: As defined by The Journal of Headache and Pain, these are linked to and caused by a health issue or trauma. Secondary headaches can either be harmless or dangerous.
Most research into headaches has been performed on humans. However, we do know that animals, including cats, get headaches. Research is limited but evolving. Before we get into how headaches manifest in domesticated cats, let’s look into the main types of headaches and their causes:
Tension headaches are one of the most common primary headaches that humans experience, and the same applies to cats. Tension headaches are described as dull, aching sensations that usually encompass your entire head. The most common cause of a tension headache is stress. Other causes can include:
- Poor posture
- Bright light
- Missed meals
- Tightened muscles
Migraines are common. They manifest as an intense pain that pulses from deep within your head, usually only on one side. These types of headache can cause you to be sensitive to light and sound, and may also trigger nausea and vomiting. People may also see flashing or shimmering lights, stars, or experience blind spots prior to a migraine settling in. Obviously, we cannot ask a house cat what it sees to diagnose a migraine.
What can trigger a tension headache can also trigger a migraine. This includes poor sleep, dehydration, and missed meals. Other causes of migraines include exposure to chemicals, hormone fluctuations, and even some foods.
So named for its habit of occurring in clustered series, cluster headaches cause a severe burning and piercing pain. Typically, this pain is behind one eye or local to one side of the face.
The Lancet goes so far as to say that cluster headaches are one of the most severe pains known to mankind. Those ailed with these headaches will experience them in a series for an unspecified amount of time.
Individual headaches can last for anywhere between 15 and 60 minutes. Clusters can be contained to hours, days, week, or months. In between clusters are periods of relief.
One experiencing cluster headaches may also exhibit redness, flushing, swelling, sweating, nasal congestion, and tearing eyes. These symptoms are often located to the half of the face experiencing the pain.
Researchers don’t know what causes cluster headaches in people, let alone if house cats appear to suffer them.
Signs That Your Cat Has A Headache
We know that cats, alongside other animals, do ail from them. Determining whether or not your cat has a headache relies on knowing how cats respond to pain.
Many of the symptoms listed above for each type of headache rely on the patient describing how they feel. A cat cannot do the same. It will rely on you observing how your cat behaves to notice that something might be wrong.
This can be especially difficult to notice, though, as cats tend to hide their pain. This is thought to be a survival instinct. A by-product of a time prior to domestication, where weakness would have made a cat more vulnerable to other predators or rival cats.
Looking for signs of pain is the first step determining if your cat is suffering a headache. Most cats will exhibit one or more of the following signs, no matter how it normally behaves.
A cat’s natural instinct when it feels unwell, due to illness or injury, is to hide. Even from its owner. Often, a cat will seek out a place of seclusion and comfort. It may hide where none can see, or it may isolate itself where none can reach. Some cats naturally prefer to be alone for the better part of the day, and self-isolation isn’t always a sign that something is wrong.
If you notice your cat doing this alongside any of the behaviors below, be sure to monitor it closely.
Headaches, of many kinds, can result in a reduced appetite. Pain can dampen an appetite. Migraines can also cause nausea, which will reduce a cat’s willingness to eat. A loss in appetite, or an outright refusal to eat, is a strong indicator that your cat is unwell.
Appetite loss can also be caused by a myriad of other conditions. If your cat refuses food for over 24 hours, get it to a vet. Cat’s convert protein into energy, and missing meals can cause them to begin losing weight.
Sensitivity To Touch
Few like to be touched when in pain. If your cat withdraws from your touch, where it normally wouldn’t, then it may be suffering a headache. The same can be said from other people or animals in their family.
Alone, this symptom may not actually be a symptom. House cats are social creatures when properly socialized. Still, most still do like some time alone. Keep a close eye out for other signs of pain or illness if the cat repeatedly withdraws from your touch throughout the day.
Pain puts a serious damper on anyone’s motivation to do anything. Headaches, especially more severe ones, can cause your cat to be lethargic until the pain passes.
A cat will naturally spend the better part of its day lazing around. Test if your cat is unmotivated or lethargic by tempting it to play, with pets, or with food.
Cats only pant when overheated. Migraines can result in fever-like symptoms and a raised temperature, although we cannot determine if the same is true for cats. Some do suggest that cats may experience a heightened temperature during headaches, prompting a panting response.
If your cat is panting and it isn’t overheated, or hasn’t recently been very active, then something could well be wrong. It may be a headache, or something more serious. Two things to note:
- Cat’s naturally run a body temperature between 101-102.5° F.
- Don’t confuse panting with the open-mouthed, grimace-like action of the flehmen’s response. This is when a cat has found an interesting smell and is exposing its fine-tuned olfactory system to the air.
Reddened gums are symptoms of other ailments which can also cause headaches. This could be an infection in the mouth, tooth pain, or overheating.
Not every cat will react to pain by hiding. Some cats will pace, fidget, vocalize, and otherwise act restlessly without an obvious cause. This can be a sign of pain or distress. The source of these feelings could be a headache.
Changes in Breathing
Asides from open-mouthed panting, cats may respond to pain with shallow, rapid breaths. This is really only a symptom of pain if the cat has been largely inactive prior to a change in breathing.
Keep a close eye on the cat. If its breathing does not return to its normal rate within 5 minutes, check it over for other signs of illness or injury.
A change in facial expression may not seem like something to watch for in a cat. However, cats can be quite expressive, even without projecting human emotions onto them.
A cat in pain may have squinted eyes. This will likely appear if the headache is light sensitive, meaning the cat is suffering a migraine. Squinted eyes may also indicate pain in the head itself.
Pupils can also indicate both if the cat is in pain and where that pain might be. Dilated pupils could mean that the cat is in pain anywhere.
Constricted pupils indicate that the pain is local to the eye. Keep in mind to account for the cat’s mood and the ambient light of the room, as both will affect the pupil.
Causes of Headaches in Cats
Headaches have numerous causes, even if many remain elusive to researchers. The knowledge we have can largely be applied to cats as well. Observation, and a vet’s consultation, will be able to further narrow down the cause of your house cat’s headache.
Still, a number of things can cause headaches in cats. You yourself can make adjustments to limit how frequently your cat suffers one.
Headaches can quite easily be the result of dehydration. Ensuring that your cat always has access to fresh, clean water will go a long way to preventing headaches.
If your cat is fussy about drinking, try including more wet food in its diet, offering it gravy or sauce treats, or using a waterfall dish. This latter option can be the most effective, long term trick. Cats may avoid drinking from standing water.
You can also move its water dish further away from its food bowls. Cats may instinctively avoid water near its food, as rotting food can taint the water and make it unsafe to drink.
We’ve all felt the hot press of the unforgiving sun. Your cat can too. Heat exhaustion typically results in a nasty headache for humans, and cats seem to have a similar reaction. Alongside the other symptoms of heatstroke, of course. Heat exhaustion can be deadly if left unattended.
Remove your cat from the hot environment and dampen its fur with tepid water – not ice or icy water, as this can cause it to go into shock. Ensure that it is exposed to ambient temperature air flow, such as a fan. Monitor its condition and take it to the vet.
Persistent headaches can indicate tumors. As tumors grow, they press on the surrounding tissues. This pressure and inflammation can result in a headache.
Loss of Appetite
Not only is a loss of appetite a symptom of having a headache, it can be a cause as well.
Many people have experienced headaches, only to eat something and find that the headache has disappeared. The same goes for your cat. If your cat is refusing to eat, it may develop a headache.
Try offering different foods, warming foods up, or offering treats to entice your cat to eat. If it refuses food, take it to the vet as soon as possible.
Trauma to the head or neck, either in the past or recently, can result in a headache. Largely, this is attributed to pulled muscles.
Collars, if they are too heavy or too tight, can cause muscle strain. This may result in a headache. Be sure that your cat’s collar, if it wears one, is of the appropriate size and not too tight. Remove any unnecessary decorations, such as bells, to cut down on weight.
Collars may also get caught on furniture or other objects. Trauma to the head or neck can result, which may cause a headache to form.
Treating Headaches in Cats
Treating headaches follows the same steps that you would take to treat your own headache. That is, except for pain medication, which should never be given to a cat without consulting a vet.
Take your cat to a cool, quiet, and dark place where it can be comfortable. Perhaps your bedroom. Offer it water and a small amount of food. You can also offer it a light petting or massage, which may help it relax.
At this point, closely monitor its recovery. If it does not recover within half a day, other symptoms appear, or its pain increases, see a vet without delay.