Recognizing Pain

One of the most important details in taking care of pets, especially elderly pets or those with chronic illness, is controlling their pain.  And yet it can also be one of the most challenging aspects of caring for a pet as well.   As much as we love our pets, it can be difficult to know how they feel, and how to recognize pain when they can’t talk to us and tell us where – or how much – it hurts.

Recognizing pain in pets is difficult.  Animals don’t react to pain the way people do.  When you or I are in pain, we make noise.   We cry, or shout, or gasp.  We hold or touch the painful spot.  We draw attention to it.  We (usually) avoid doing things that we know will make the pain worse.  Animals react differently.  I have lost count of the times I’ve heard things like…

‘He’s not crying, so he must not be in pain.’

‘She’s limping, but I don’t think she’s in pain.’

‘He can’t be in pain; he’ll still run around the backyard sometimes.’

Dogs and cats – especially cats – are masters at hiding their pain.  Their nature is not to draw attention to any weakness or injury.  Also, most of the conditions we face, especially in aging pets, lead more to chronic pain than acute pain, which can build slowly and be very difficult to recognize.

So – how do you know if your pet is in pain?  What signs can you watch for?

-Limping or lameness

Any pet that is favoring a limb is likely in pain.  There are occasional nerve disorders that can cause changes in a pet’s gait, but those are much less common.  Even if your pet isn’t crying or whimpering when it walks, if it’s putting less weight on one leg, odds are it is in pain.


-Changes in activity or mobility

These can be more subtle than limping, but are still good clues.  If your dog is bunny-hopping when she runs instead of running normally; if your cat has stopped jumping up onto the bed or sofa to sleep next to you; if your pet is slow to climb the stairs, or having trouble getting into the car, or just moving more slowly, these are signs that they’re uncomfortable and that moving around is becoming difficult.  A lot of times, what we think of as ‘slowing down’ in our older pets is actually the result of pain.


-Changes in behavior

Is your kitty getting grumpy in his old age?  Does your dog tend to be less patient or more snappish?  Is your pet hiding and avoiding people?  Just like people, animals get cranky when they don’t feel well.  Before you decide that your pet is just old and cranky, ask your vet if they could be in pain.


-Loss of appetite

Pain takes many forms, and an animal that doesn’t feel well may not want to engage with the world at all.  If they’re in serious discomfort, it can affect their appetite as well as their mobility and behavior.


-Chewing or licking at an area

While there are many reasons an animal may lick or chew at a spot, pain is a possibility.  If your pet is licking or biting at a particular area, and your vet has ruled out other problems like skin infections or parasites, it may well be a sign that that area is painful.


-Changes in body language

We tend to think of body language as a human construct, but animals communicate with their bodies as well.  A pet in pain may sit or lie in a different posture than usual – she may lean more to one side, or keep her tail lowered.  Cats in pain will often ruffle or fluff up their coat, and they can sit with their shoulders hunched and head down.  Also, painful cats will often stop grooming themselves, leading to a flaky or matted coat.

Our pets will tell us when and where they hurt – we just need to learn to listen, and to speak their language.  If you ever have any question about whether your pet is in discomfort, ask your veterinarian – we can help you figure out whether there is any cause for concern, what the causes are, and what can be done to help.