Each pet experiences pain in a unique way, but there are several common symptoms that vets look for to help them determine if a pet is suffering.

By Kelli Bender
February 27, 2019 09:00 AM

You never want your fur baby to feel bad.

Unfortunately, sometimes it can be difficult to tell when your pet is experiencing pain, especially since animals don’t communicate feelings of discomfort in the same way as humans.

Often owners don’t realize their pet is hurting until a health problem becomes serious. To help owners identify possible issues, PEOPLE reached out to veterinarian Emi Saito, a VMD, MSPH, MBA and DACVPM at Banfield Pet Hospital, to learn about the signs professional look for when they are trying to determine whether a pet is in pain.

Dr. Saito has this expert advice to share, so you have more answers the next time you are concerned that your pet might be in pain.

How are the ways pets express pain different and similar to how humans express pain?

Dogs and cats can be quite skilled at concealing pain. Unlike people, pets can’t explicitly tell us that they are in pain or experiencing discomfort. But just like people, each pet may react to pain differently – some will visibly or audibly react to only the slightest discomfort, while others might not react until they are experiencing severe pain.

Mild pain might come from something like early or mild dental disease or skin irritation. A few examples of what might cause moderate pain in pets are a broken or abscessed tooth, minor eye injury, ear infections or the repair of a knee injury. Pets may experience severe pain from things like broken bones, severe burns or even moderate eye injuries.

Brown boykin spaniel lying on grassCredit: John Ferrett / 500px/Getty
Credit: John Ferrett / 500px/Getty

Because each pet will react differently, it’s important for pet owners to be aware of their pet’s “normal” behaviors and remain attuned to what can sometimes be subtle changes. Partner with your veterinarian when this happens – a thorough physical examination can help discern whether the changes you’ve noticed are due to pain, or something else.

What are common signs of pain that owners should look out for?

Although the signs of pain in cats and dogs varies by pet and depends largely on the cause and severity of pain, generally speaking, pet owners should keep an eye out for:

  1. Heavy or labored breathing/panting
  2. Increased heart rate
  3. Whimpering or increased vocalization
  4. Decreased appetite/reduced eating
  5. Trembling
  6. Restlessness or decreased activity
  7. Withdrawn or a mood/personality change

How do cats in particular show that they are in pain?
Cats are known for hiding illness, weakness or pain. Sometimes cats will literally hide in dark places, such as under a bed or in a closet, when they are not feeling well in order to conserve energy or avoid pain. This behavior goes back to their existence in the wild when trying to avoid attracting the attention of would-be predators. Pet owners may not immediately see physical signs that something is wrong, so it’s important to be observant, know what is normal for your cat and what is not, and have your cat regularly examined by a veterinarian so that signs of pain might be detected earlier.

How do dogs in particular show that they are in pain?
Your dog may act differently when in pain, such as becoming less active than usual, or have obvious physical signs such as limping or gnawing/licking at one particular spot. Your dog may also show discomfort by becoming more vocal or being protective of certain areas of the body. Your pet may be unable to jump, or climb stairs like they did in the past. Changes such as these could be due to pain and should be checked out by your veterinarian.

What are some misconceptions about how pets express pain?
Many pet owners don’t recognize their pet is experiencing discomfort. Many of us know how we react to pain, and we think our pets will be the same. But while some pets may vocalize or show obvious signs of being uncomfortable, many do not. In some cases – for example, chronic pain due to osteoarthritis, which for many pets has a slow, gradual onset – pet owners might write off signs their pet is in pain as normal changes brought on by their pet’s old age.

What are the best preventative measures I can take to keep my pet from being in pain?
Important preventive measures include a balanced diet, exercise and most importantly, regular exams with your veterinarian. Paying close attention to your pet’s physical state and behavior can help you ensure your pet isn’t experiencing pain. An excellent time to closely examine your pet is while petting or grooming. Be sure to check areas such as your pet’s paws and stomach area for injuries, swelling or heat. All of these could be signs of pain in your pet. Pain associated with injuries, surgery or age-related conditions like arthritis can often be treated by your veterinarian with different medications or supplements.

Your veterinarian may recommend several diagnostic tests ranging from special exams and bloodwork, to X-rays or a ultrasound to pinpoint the cause of the pain your pet is experiencing. Depending on the identified cause, your veterinarian may recommend pain medications or supplements, lifestyle changes or a change in diet. Pain relief medications come in many forms from injections to tablets. For chronic pain such as arthritis, the goal is to maintain long term pain relief. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) provide pain relief, often with few side effects. Corticosteroids are also used to help control pain in pets.

Never give your pet human pain reliever (e.g. aspirin OR acetaminophen) without first discussing with your veterinarian. Pets metabolize medications differently than people, and common over-the-counter headache or joint pain relievers for people can poison pets sometimes with just one dose.