How can I tell if my pet is in pain?

A pet in pain is clearly a situation that is going to distress pet owners. I generally find that there are a lot of misconceptions about pain in our pets. The most misleading of these is that if your pet is in pain it will somehow be obvious, because your pet will be crying out, whining or making some sort of noise.

Usually this is not the case. Animals in extreme pain do sometimes make a noise, like a distressed yelp or howl if in extreme pain, like a cat has a broken leg after a car accident or a dog has a ruptured spinal disc.

Hopefully, this article will give you a few ideas on how to detect whether your pet is in pain before it gets too severe. The main things to look out for are changes in behaviour, changes in movement and changes in eating or drinking.


Is your pet in pain?

Changes in behavior

Changes in behaviour

Has your pet suddenly become more aggressive? Is she less tolerant of you or family members?

Chronic pain makes us irritable and it is safe to assume that the same is true of our pets. Pets in pain may also be feeling anxious, feel that they cannot get the peace and quiet that they need and feel less able to ‘defend’ themselves. They may also fear being handled or approached, anticipating that such handling is going to touch their sore spot. All of these worries may manifest as a usually placid pet becoming grumpy or a grumpy one becoming even less approachable.

There are, of course, other reasons as to why a pet may suddenly become more aggressive but in my experience pain is one of the most common reasons, so book an appointment with your vet to see if you can unravel the problem.


Withdrawal, lack of interest, lack of activity

Pets that are in pain try to rest and will move as little as possible to minimise pain. This is true of most types of pain, not just limb pain. Pets with chronic tooth pain, tummy ache, neck or back pain will all be less active. They often spend increasing amounts of time sleeping and less time playing and pestering you for treats, cuddles, walks or games. Quite often a decline in activity is put down to age but with age comes an increasing likelihood of arthritis, dental problems and chest problems. These are all treatable; don’t let her suffer in silence.  An older pet can still be a fit, healthy pet.

Sometimes a decline in activity can be difficult to detect, especially in cats that seem to spend a lot of time asleep anyway! You need to look for subtle clues. Does your cat no longer come to greet you when it normally would?  Does it sleep in a different spot?  

Don’t be misled by the fact that your dog is still happy to go on its walks, so if they are suffering chronic pain, for example from bad teeth or arthritis they will still bounce around and look excited. They may take the walk a little more slowly or be less inclined to play. These are the subtle signs you need to look out for that will tell you that your dog may be in pain.


Is your pet in pain?

Lack of interest or activity



Changes in movement

It is usually quite obvious if your pet is limping. If your pet is limping, in the vast majority of cases it will be because that leg is painful. He doesn’t want to put any weight on it. I have examined dogs and cats with broken limbs that make a minimum of fuss when examined. This is not because they are not experiencing pain.

Some pets are trying to hide their symptoms because they don’t want to show any sign of vulnerability; maybe you have been exasperated by a cat that’s been limping for days that walks normally in the vet’s office and jumps on and off the table as if to show you up?  At the vet your pet is suddenly more concerned about the different smells and different people, their pain suddenly becomes less significant.  Less obvious is a change in the way your pet moves. Some conditions affect more than one leg, and some conditions move from one leg to another. Any change in gait can be a sign that your pet has painful limbs, joints or spine.

If your pet cannot do the things that last week it seemed to do easily – then it is likely to have pain somewhere. Joint and muscle problems are very common and usually easily treated so make an appointment to see your vet.


Changes in eating/drinking

I often show people their pet’s teeth that are smelly, loose, infected and even falling out. They seem surprised when I tell them that they are likely to be causing their pet pain. 

Animals that feel sick, nauseous or are running a temperature don’t feel hungry so they don’t eat. Animals that have toothache still feel hungry, they find a way of working around the pain. Very often when the teeth are cleaned up, owners remark how much more lively and engaged their pets are.
Cats will not eat if they have an infected mouth or severely infected gums. Both of these conditions could be put into the extreme pain category and need to be treated urgently.

Unexplained shaking or trembling can be a sign of pain.  In my experience it often turns out to be colic or gut pain. Occassionally excessive panting can be a sign of pain but generally animals in pain don’t pant because it involves a lot of body movement.

If you suspect your pet is in pain don’t panic but do make an appointment to visit your vet.


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