Recognizing Signs of Pain in Your Pet

Pain is a clinically significant symptom that can adversely affect an animal’s quality of life—and the first step in treating it is recognizing and acknowledging it.

Our pets share the same anatomical and biochemical pain pathways that we do; therefore, we can expect their level of discomfort with certain conditions to be similar to ours. Unfortunately, they cannot tell us with words how they feel or where they hurt, but they can give us clues about their level of discomfort.

Determining how painful our pets are can be very confusing and difficult. Pets can be affected to varying degrees by their pain depending on their personality type, just like humans. While there is tremendous variation in the ways pets express pain—differing from species to species, breed to breed, and even individual to individual—there are some common behaviors that can help us recognize when our pets aren’t feeling like themselves.

Photo of cat who may be showing subtle signs of pain

Signs of Pain

It is important to remember that pain is subjective. Some painful animals may have one or several of these signs, while others may not show signs at all. In addition, pets with anxiety or other behavioral problems may actually mimic signs of physical pain.

Dogs

  • Tail between the legs
  • Arched or hunched back
  • Reluctance to move
  • Drooped head
  • Protection of the painful area
  • Aggression or irritability
  • Growling or biting, especially when the painful area is touched
  • Hiding or trying to escape
  • Howling, moaning, or whimpering
  • Carrying one leg
  • Lameness or limping
  • Unusual gait or inability to walk
  • Reluctance or inability to jump
  • Little interest in food or play
  • Chewing or licking the painful area

Cats

  • Tucked belly or legs
  • Arched or hunched head or back
  • Reluctance to move
  • Drooped head
  • Slumped body
  • Aggression, irritability, or biting
  • Hiding or trying to escape
  • Crying, screaming, or moaning
  • Hissing or spitting
  • Carrying one leg
  • Lameness or limping
  • Unusual gait or inability to walk
  • Reluctance or inability to jump
  • Attacking or hissing, especially when the painful area is touched
  • Failure to groom
  • Dilated pupils
  • Little interest in food or play

Photo of dog who may be showing subtle signs of pain

Pain Management

Because each pet experiences pain differently, what works for one may not work for another. Fortunately, there are a number of options to effectively treat or manage pain in pets, including medication, nutraceutical products, laser therapy, acupuncture, physical therapy, and weight management.

Medication

Oral and injectable medications, including opioids and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), can help decrease chronic pain and reduce swelling and stiffness. Use caution, however. Well-meaning pet owners often give their pets drugs intended for human use with the reasoning that what works for one works for all, but this is not true. While many human medications are also used in animals, the dosages, metabolization, and effects of these drugs vary greatly from species to species. Never give your pet any medication without consulting your veterinarian first.

Nutraceutical products

Supplements like glucosamine, chondroitin, and omega-3 fatty acids can effectively limit pain caused by arthritis and other joint issues. These products may also potentially slow progression of the disease.

Laser therapy

Laser therapy uses deep-penetrating light to relieve pain through the release of endorphins and stimulates injured cells to heal at a faster rate without the use of pharmaceuticals or surgery.

Physical therapy

Rehabilitation and hydrotherapy (water therapy) can improve your dog’s range of motion and slow the progression painful conditions like arthritis.

Weight management

Excess weight puts stress on your pet’s joints. Managing your pet’s weight effectively through nutrition and exercise can help relieve pain without the use of medication.

If you think your dog or cat may be in pain, don’t let him suffer silently. Contact us or schedule an appointment with one of our veterinarians.

 

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