It’s no secret that cats love to nap. The average cat sleeps around 15 hours every day, whereas some older and lazier felines will happily kip for a whopping 20 hours. Cats also love sleeping in a whole load of contorted positions, many of which look extremely uncomfortable to us humans!
However, lethargy is also a sign of sickness and depression. Much like humans, cats will sleep more frequently and have less energy when they’re ill than when they’re fit and healthy. Cat sleeping positions when sick can also help identify any underlying issues or feelings of discomfort.
With this in mind, it’s essential to pay attention to how our cats are sleeping so we can determine whether they’re suffering. Cat’s cannot communicate through talking, and so their body language and behaviors are the only things we can use to determine how they’re feeling.
In this article, I will run through some common cat sleeping positions and what each of these could mean in regards to your cat’s health. I’ll also go through some other signs of pain and sickness. This way, if your cat is in pain, you can ensure she’s treated quickly and back to her usual self in no time!
Cat Sleeping Positions When Sick
Cats love bending their bodies into all kinds of positions! From having their legs behind their head to sitting in a loaf position, their flexibility and funny quirks are what make them so adorable. Yet, not all positions are a good sign. Here is a list of all the worrisome cat sleeping positions that could indicate pain or sickness.
1. Curled Up In A Ball
One of the most common positions you may see your cat sleeping in is them curled up in a ball.
This is one of the coziest positions a cat can sleep in as its body is curled up as tightly as possible. By doing this, it is easier for your cat to keep warm as they tuck their paws and ears close to their bodies, which is where the majority of their body heat is lost. Think about how on a winter’s night you’ll sleep curled up, whereas on a sticky summer’s evening you’ll sleep stretched out. It’s the same for cats.
Whereas this in itself is not a sign of pain or illness – your cat might just fancy being cozy – it could indicate that they are cold. Cats have a higher core body temperature than humans and cannot regulate their temperature as easily, meaning they do struggle in the cold more than we do.
To tell if your cat is struggling to keep warm, check your thermostat is set to an appropriate temperature. What temperature do cats like? Well, this depends on the breed of your cat, their size, age, and health condition. For example, a Sphynx with no fur coat will not cope as well in the cold as big fluffy Maine Coons or Himilayan cats. That being said, as a general rule of thumb, you should try to keep your house at a temperature of at least 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
If a cat is too cold it can lead to hypothermia, which can be a serious issue for cats. A cat’s body temperature will continue to drop until its body completely shuts down. They may have to go into a coma or, in worst-case scenarios, die. Therefore, you must warm your cat up before the hypothermia kicks in.
2. Sleeping On Your Chest
Many owners are flattered when their cat comes to sleep on their chest, me included! When there’s a cat sleeping on my chest, I feel so loved and touched that my feline wants to curl up with me. However, a cat sleeping on your chest can be a worrisome sleeping position.
Just as curling up in a ball could indicate that your cat is cold, so could sleeping on your chest. Our bodies give off heat and so laying on our chest is comparable to a cat curling up next to a radiator or in a sunny spot in your home.
As cats are drawn to the warmth, this isn’t a definite sign that your cat is struggling to keep warm, but do check the temperature of your house and help your cat to warm up if you think they are at risk of developing hypothermia. Otherwise, enjoy your kitty cuddles!
3. Flat On Their Back
Many owners think that when a cat lies on its back it is a sure sign that they are comfortable with you. They’re just asking for a belly rub, right? While this is often true, a cat could also be lying outstretched on their back as they are too warm and this posture is helping them to lose heat and cool down. This explains why you’ll often see cats lying on their back in the sun.
Ordinarily, this is nothing to worry about. However, if a cat’s body temperature gets raised too much and they cannot cool themselves down, they could develop heatstroke. This is a type of hyperthermia and can cause your cat’s heart rate and breathing to quicken, potentially leading to coma and death.
Alongside sleeping in a stretched-out position, cats with heatstroke will also have red gums, may start panting in an attempt to cool themselves down, and will often become much more tired as they near exhaustion. They will also suffer from sickness and diarrhea.
If you notice your cat getting too hot, help them cool down by lowering the temperature in your home, ensure they have plenty of water nearby, and stroke them gently with a damp towel. If there is an onset of sickness and diarrhea, you’ll need to arrange an emergency appointment with your vet.
4. Cat Lying Flat On Stomach
When a cat lies flat on its stomach with all four paws outstretched, this is known as splooting. This is more commonly seen in dogs, but cats can too occasionally lie in this pose. It feels great to them as their hip joints can be stretched out, and looks adorable too!
Aside from easing any muscle tension, another reason cats sploot is to cool themselves down. Having their flat stomach pressed flat against a cold surface such as a hard floor can really help cats handle the heat on a hot summer’s day.
However, as with cats lying flat on their back, it is essential that you lookout for signs that your cat is getting too hot. If they are too warm, help them to cool down before they develop heatstroke.
5. Cat Loaf Position
In the cat loaf position, a cat lies on its belly and tucks its front paws underneath its body, resembling a loaf of bread. When cats sleep in the loaf position, it’s usually a good sign. By tucking their paws underneath their bodies they are more vulnerable as it is more difficult for them to get away if a threatening situation developed. Therefore, it’s a sign your cat is comfortable.
However, this position could also signal cats are in pain, specifically in their paws. If your cat is feeling pain or discomfort in its paw, it could tuck it underneath its body as a way to protect it. Common paw problems include overgrown claws that have curled back and are digging into their paw pads. Or, your cat could have an open wound or something sharp stuck into the paw pad.
To determine the exact issues, you need to inspect your cat’s paws. However, don’t try to do this while your cat is loafing as most cats don’t enjoy having their paws pulled out from underneath them and touched! Instead, watch your cat when they get up. Are they limping? Can they put pressure on the paw? If not, pick your cat up and try to take a closer look.
6. Cat Meatloaf Position
The cat meatloaf position is a variation of the loaf position sick felines often sleep in. This is where your cat is in a hunched position with its back arched upwards and paws underneath its body. They will be leaning forward and sleeping with their head down and their eyes clenched shut in pain.
All the positions I have mentioned already could indicate sickness and pain, but there is also a good chance that your cat just wants to get cozy and feels comfortable. However, the meatloaf position is not like this. If your cat is in the meatloaf pose, they almost definitely need medical attention.
This pose typically signals that your cat is suffering from feline chronic kidney disease (CKD). In CDK, your cat’s kidneys will stop functioning as they should normally. Kidneys are an essential organ can carry out several important roles, including:
- Removing dangerous toxins from the blood to reduce the chance of infection
- Maintaining water and electrolyte balance to prevent dehydration
- Producing hormones needed for the production of red blood cells
Cats with CKD will be unable to perform these functions as effectively, so toxins will accumulate in the blood and your cat may have increased thirst in an attempt to counteract the dehydration. The lower number of red blood cells can also cause anemia, meaning your cat is much more lethargic.
Older cats are more likely to suffer from this condition, and unfortunately, there is no cure for the disorder. However, a trip to the vet is a must! Your vet will be able to test for CKD and let you know how to manage it effectively to reduce pain and any further complications.
7. Lying On Their Side
When a cat lies on its side, it is typically a good thing. They aren’t curling up so they must be a good temperature, and they feel confident and relaxed around you as side-sleeping is one of the most vulnerable postures for a cat. Also, cats automatically try to hide when they are in pain, so it is unlikely for a cat to assume a vulnerable position if they are struggling.
However, if your cat is stretched out on its side, it may be having difficulty breathing. Curling up into a ball or lying on their stomach could compress their lungs and make it harder to breathe, whereas stretching on their side makes it easier to inhale and exhale.
If your cat is finding it hard to breathe, you will be able to hear them wheezing and their breathing will be loud and deep. They may also be panting if they are struggling to breathe through their nasal passages. Although this is rare in felines, cats can breathe through their mouths if they suffer from asthma or have an infection of the upper respiratory tract.
If your cat is lying on its side while showing any of these symptoms, arrange an appointment with your veterinarian.
8. Sleeping With One Eye Open
You might see your cat sleeping with their eyes open. This seems strange to us, but in the wild cats are both predators and prey and need to be constantly alert, even when they’re napping. The ability for them to sleep with their eyes open is kind of genius! They can keep an eye on what’s going on around them in case they need to bolt, but still have time to rest.
A variation on this is if your cat shuts one eye as they sleep. This is an even more intelligent ability of cats called unihemispheric slow-wave sleep. They shut off the half of their brain that is connected to the closed eye, while the other half is still completely conscious and alert.
However, your cat could be sleeping with one eye closed not because they are cleverly resting half of their brain, but because they have an eye infection or other eye condition that makes it painful to keep it open. You’ll know if this is the case as your cat will keep one eye closed for the entire day, not just while they sleep. Also, you’ll likely notice other signs such as excessive blinking, red and swollen eyes, or eye discharge.
When I first saw my cat keeping one eye closed I panicked! But, it turns out my cat only had conjunctivitis, which is the most common feline eye infection and can easily be treated with antibiotics. If your cat has an eye infection, it’s most likely only this too. However, other conditions include glaucoma, corneal ulcers, or uveitis to name a few, which vary in severity.
If you think your cat has an eye condition, take them to the vet so that they diagnose the issue and prescribe effective treatment to ease the pain for preventing any further complications.
9. Praying Position
When cats have their chest close to the ground and their rear in the air, this is known as the praying position. Although cats won’t sleep in this pose, it can indicate sickness and is another posture to be aware of. Sick cats will assume this position more frequently than healthy cats.
The main condition behind this abnormal posture is feline peritonitis. This is where the abdominal tissues become inflamed and cause severe abdominal pain. When stretching their tummy out in the praying position the pain may be temporarily eased. Cats with peritonitis are then most like to fall asleep in a curled-up position to protect their stomach or outstretched on their back or side.
Some other symptoms of peritonitis include increased lethargy, crying and whimpering, and a swollen stomach that feels hard and bloated when you touch it. Depending on which of the abdominal tissues are involved, your cat may also have vomiting or diarrhea.
This condition can be caused by a huge range of things. Commonly, it is due to a bacterial, viral, or parasitic infection. If this is the case, your vet will prescribe medication to treat the underlying cause. However, peritonitis can also be a result of tumors and cancers, poisoning, hernia, or trauma to any of the abdominal organs. In these situations, treatment may involve surgery.
10. Always The Same Position
Cats like to sleep in a variety of positions. They could be found sleeping curled up in a ball, lying on their side, in a loaf position, or any other position imaginable! My point is, cats love variety and they will swap and change how they sleep each time. Therefore, if your cat is in one sleeping position at all times it can suggest your cat is sick.
For example, if your cat sleeps curled up in a ball one time, but then outstretched on its back the next, there is little cause for concern. Your cat is probably sleeping in these positions because they feel comfortable. However, if your cat slept curled up in a ball in the warmest spot in your house every single time, they are probably too cold and at risk of hypothermia.
Similarly, if your cat is sleeping with one eye open constantly, they likely have an eye condition that needs looking into. However, if they occasionally sleep with one eye open, but interchange this with other positions, they’re probably in unihemispheric slow-wave sleep.
Therefore, it is the frequency of these positions along with the poses themselves that are what you should be paying the closest attention to.
Other Signs of Sickness & Pain
Although it is important to be aware of cat sleeping positions when sick and what they mean, these poses by themselves don’t tell us all too much. We need to observe these sleeping positions and frequencies alongside changes in behavior, body language, and other symptoms.
Here are some key things you can look out for that could show your cat is sick or in pain.
Change In Appetite
Cats are very finicky creatures and will often have a preference for a specific type of food or brand. They also need a feeding routine. However, if you notice a change in your cat’s appetite when the food you give them and their feeding routine has gone unchanged, it could be a sign of sickness.
A sudden increase in appetite could be a sign of diabetes mellitus. Your cat is struggling to regulate their blood sugar levels and so eats more to get their blood sugar up. This is usually accompanied by weight loss and increased thirst.
Alternatively, if your cat is eating more, they could have hyperthyroidism which is where there is overproduction of the thyroid hormones. My elderly cat suffered from hyperthyroidism, and it made my cat always hungry but skinny. In fact, an increased appetite but a loss of weight is one of the tell-tell signs of this condition.
On the other hand, a loss of appetite isn’t a good sign either. This could be a sign of infection, intestinal issues, or cancer. It can also indicate kidney failure, so if your cat is adopting the meatloaf position and has totally lost its appetite, CKD is a likely cause. Similarly, dental issues could be causing your cat pain when they eat, leading to a reduction in appetite.
Cats naturally don’t drink much water and many need encouragement to increase their water intake. If your cat is suddenly drinking excessively, this isn’t usual cat behavior and could be a sign of sickness. As mentioned briefly, an increased thirst is another symptom of diabetes. It can also be a sign of thyroid issues or kidney diseases.
Cats don’t typically meow for no reason. This form of vocalization is reserved exclusively for humans and whenever your cat meows it is because it is trying to communicate something to you. They could perhaps be telling you they want feeding, want some attention, or want to be let outside. However, excessive vocalization is a bad sign.
Your cat meowing excessively could be their way of telling you that they are sick or in pain. You may also notice your cat purring for no apparent reason, or growling and hissing at you and other members of your household. Get your cat checked by your vet if there is any unusual vocalization to determine the illness or injury that is sparking this behavior.
Increased vocalization is also a sign of stress in felines. Cats are very sensitive creatures and even the smallest changes could cause them to become stressed, so think about any changes in your home lately. This could be something as simple as you making a slight change to their usual routine or having strangers in your home.
Every cat has its own unique and wonderful personality. Some are confident and boisterous, whereas others are timid; some love behind lap cats and are extremely docile, whereas others can be more independent and aggressive if handled incorrectly. While all cats are different, sudden personality changes should be taken seriously.
If your confident cat is suddenly hiding a lot more, responding more to loud noises, and being around more skittish, they are likely stressed out by some change to the environment. They could also be sick and so feel a lot more anxious and vulnerable.
Increased aggression is another common sign that something is wrong. Your cat may growl and hiss at you or lash out and scratch you if you get too close, which usually signals that your cat is in pain. This behavior is supposed to deter you from picking them up, as by touching your cat you could be making their pain worse!
Changes in Grooming Behavior
Cats love to self-groom and are known for being extremely clean creatures. When self-grooming stops, it’s a sign something is wrong. Commonly, a lack of grooming could just be because your cat feels slightly under the weather or stressed out. However, it could also be a sign of something more serious.
If older cats stop grooming, they may suffer from arthritis. This is where their joints will become swollen and stiff, and contorting their bodies into the unusual positions they need to to clean themselves all over could be causing them pain.
Lack of self-grooming could also indicate dental issues. Cats rely on their mouth and tongues to self-groom, so any dental issues could also lead to pain while grooming. This includes inflammation of the mouth, gum disease, oral tumors, or even just a sore jaw. Other signs of dental diseases include when cats rub their teeth on you, or even if your cat stopped eating dry food but still eats treats. You could also notice a reduction in appetite or bad breath.
Litter Box Issues
There is a range of litter box issues that could present themselves and an even bigger list of potential medical conditions or injuries behind these problems.
If your cat stops using their litter box, it could be that they suffer from arthritis, and climbing in and out of the litter box is causing them pain. If this is the case you can opt for a low entry litter box for your senior cat.
Similarly, if they have in-grown claws or have injured their paws, the litter may be uncomfortable to walk on.
Elderly cats could also suffer from dementia or other cognitive dysfunction and simply forget where their litter box is.
On the other hand, cats that use their litter box but have started passing urine much more frequently could be suffering from a urinary tract infection, kidney disease, hyperthyroidism, or diabetes. If they are barely urinating at all, there could be a urinary obstruction or cystitis.
Changes in Their Eyes
They say eyes are the windows to the soul, and for cats, it is no different. Your cat’s eyes show a lot of emotion and can tell you how a cat is feeling. Their pupils will dilate when they are playing or feeling content, whereas staring intently at an object can be your cat signaling that they are untrusting and feeling tense. Slow blinks, on the other hand, can be a sign of love and trust.
It therefore follows that we can use our cat’s eyes to help identify pain, which is usually characterized by permanent wide eyes with dilated pupils. Are my cat’s eyes always dilated because they are in pain? No, it could be a side effect of medication, or a sign of hypertension, anxiety, or ocular illness. Whichever the cause, it’s best to get it checked out.
There may also be several other eye changes in a sick cat, such as droopy eyelids, squinting and blinking excessively, or abnormal discharge from the eye. These are all often a sign of eye infections or conditions and should be looked at as soon as possible to prevent blindness.
Reduced Activity Levels
Lethargy in cats is often a sign of a problem. You may notice your cat sleeping more frequently, not being as playful, or seeming to have all-round less energy.
Fevers, infections, or general sickness are common culprits of low energy. All your cat’s energy is going to its immune system which is working hard to fight off the infection, and so they simply don’t have the energy for other activities.
Other reasons your cat’s energy levels have dipped could be down to pain rather than exhaustion. Arthritic cats will be less active as the moment of jumping and playing hurts their joints. Injured cats will also not move around as much and could appear in pain when walking or jumping. Look out for signs of limping and see your vet if needed.
As pet owners, we want to know when our cat is sick or in pain so we can help ease their suffering. One way to do this is to observe the positions they sleep in. However, cat sleeping positions when sick don’t differ that much from regular cat sleeping positions. The one exception is the meatloaf – if your cat is ever in a hunched position, it is usually as they aren’t feeling great.
With this in mind, it is the frequency of these sleeping positions alongside noticing other changes in cat’s behaviors and body language that can tell us if our cats are in pain. Alone these things mean nothing but combined it can make it easy to determine if your cat is happy and healthy or not.
If you notice anything out of the ordinary, take your cat to the vet for a check-up to restore your cat’s quality of life, happiness, and health.