Serenity Veterinary Services, Leah Nagel, DVM, cVMA

How do I tell if my animal hurts?

I get a lot of questions and uncertainty from owners about whether their dog or cat is experiencing pain, and for good reason. Dogs and cats hide pain to protect themselves. They don’t know that we can help them. Announcing their pain by whimpering or crying in “the wild” shows weakness and attracts predators. In my experience, even animals with broken legs rarely cry after the fracture occurs. So with such a capacity to hide pain, how are we supposed to tell how our pets are feeling? Looking for a number of subtle signs may help you detect pain in your four legged family members; so let’s talk about some of the most common ways animals tell us they hurt.

  1. Changes in sociability – If your pet is normally a loner and they suddenly won’t leave your side, they may be asking for help. If they are normally glued to you (velcro pets, anyone?) and suddenly seem to want to be by themselves for most of the day, it could be because they don’t feel well. Try to notice your pet’s habits day to day to figure out what their normal sociability is. If there is a sudden change, contact your veterinarian.
  2. Avoiding physical contact – Most of our pets enjoy physical contact like being petted or massaged. If you notice that when you pet certain areas of your dog or cat’s body, they tense, shift, move away from you, or give you a side eyed look, they are likely protecting a spot that hurts. Take note of this spot and be gentle, but try touching the area again later on, if your pet moves away again, it might be time to investigate further.
  3. Changes in activity – Maybe your dog used to run for the ball from sunup to sundown and now brings it back a few times and then stops playing, maybe your cat that used to love to “hunt” their toys spends all day sleeping in the cat tree. Even as animals age, changes in activity are more likely related to comfort or pain than simply “getting older.” If your dog is tiring quickly on walks or not seeming as enthusiastic to play, it could be due to pain.
  4. Pained facial expression – Just like people, animals show pained facial expressions. Look for flattening or drooping of the ears, squinting or tightness around the eyes, whiskers curved forward, and the head dropping below the neck level. All of these are characteristic of facial expressions of pain in pets. If you are interested in learning more about pained facial expressions, you can check out the feline grimace scale from the University of Montreal.
  5. Changes in appetite – Pain typically makes animals not want to eat as much. Especially in cases of chronic pain, you may notice a slight decrease in appetite or enthusiasm for food.
  6. Limping – This one is more obvious, but limps can be very subtle in animals. If you can see a limp, it is without question due to discomfort. Animals don’t limp out of habit or to get attention, they only do so if it hurts to walk normally.
  7. Behavior change – similar to sociability changes, other behavior changes may come along with pain in animals. In cats, urinating outside the litter box is common, while dogs may become more likely to snap in defense if they are experiencing pain.

If you suspect your animal is in pain, I recommend making an appointment. As part of my examination, I do a full orthopedic (bone and joint), muscular, and neurologic examination to try to identify sources of pain in pets. Once I identify where the pain is located, we can discuss diagnostic and treatment options and answer any questions you may have. Use the “request appointment” button on my home page to reach out. I’m here to help.