MONTREAL -- A new app developed by Montreal researchers will help cat owners determine if their pet is in pain.

Unlike dogs, who will vocalize and even try to communicate with their owners if they are in pain, severe pain in cats can be harder to detect and may go unnoticed for longer, said one of the app's developers, Dr. Paulo Steagall.

"Pain is indeed quite difficult to recognize in cats because of their particular behaviour, even by animal health professionals," said Steagall, who is a professor of anesthesia and pain management at the University de Montreal's (UdeM) Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. "It's a big challenge on a daily basis."

Cats, true to form, may be more independent and aloof than dogs if they feel pain, which may delay detection of a problem. Changes in the animal's behaviour, such as changes in attitude or posture, may alert the owner, said Steagall.

The app uses a pain scale (the "Feline Grimace Scale") developed at the UdeM's Faculty of Veterinary Medicine to help owners determine if their pet is in pain.

The owner simply observes the cat from a distance when it is awake and quiet, and notes five criteria: ear position, eye opening, muzzle tension, whisker position and head position. Depending on the answers provided, the app may suggest contacting the veterinarian.

As for the veterinarians, since the tool reveals the degree of pain felt by the cat, it allows them to determine if they should administer a painkiller.

The app assesses acute pain, not chronic pain, said Steagall, who The Canadian Press caught up with in Hong Kong where he will be teaching at City University for the next year.

"It's also an ethical issue to make sure animals are not in pain," he said.

The app also allows the owner to take a photo of their pet and send it to their veterinarian. The photo can also be sent to the University of Montreal's research group to contribute to the development of feline welfare, Steagall said.

The Feline Grimace Scale app was developed with funding from the company Zoetis and with the collaboration of Quebec-based Vertisoft. It is available for free on Android and iOS platforms, in French, English and Spanish.

-- This report by The Canadian Press was first published in French on Jan. 22, 2022.