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Signs of Pain in Animals

Over the years, I’ve had many people tell me that their pet is limping, but does not seem to be in any pain. I completely understand why someone might not think there is pain associated with the limp, but the fact is that unless one leg is mechanically shorter than the other, the only reason an animal will limp is pain.


Unlike people, our companion animals do not moan, mutter under their breath or complain to anyone who will listen when they are hurting. Quite the opposite, hiding pain is a normal survival mechanism and unless the pain is severe, most animals will not yelp or cry out. Many will just stoically get up and go about their business in spite of hurting. Cats especially will work very hard to maintain their routine and it is not unusual for the problem to go unnoticed until it is more advanced.


The signs of pain in animals can be subtle. So what do you look for that lets you know your pet is hurting? Signs can vary widely depending on where the pain is. Things to watch out for are:


●Changes in posture or stance such as standing hunched, holding the head at an odd angle, or an unbalanced distribution of weight


●Painful animal will move more slowly than usual, hesitate on stairs, hesitate when jumping up or down, get up more slowly after sitting or lying down, or sit down from a standing position very cautiously.


●Decreased activity, especially if the animal is not resting in a relaxed and comfortable position can be a sign of pain. However, some painful animals will actually become restless and pace around or shift position frequently.


●Rubbing or persistent licking or chewing of an area.


●Growling or snapping, yelping or moving away when touched.


●Animals in pain often have a poor appetite (trying to eat but dropping food or pawing at their mouths may be a sign of mouth or tooth pain).


●Breathing hard and increased panting is also a sign of pain. Cats in pain may have a continuous “comfort” purr.


●Avoidance behaviors such as shying away or flinching, hiding in a closet or under the bed.


●Changes in vocalization such as sighing, moaning, groaning, whimpering or yipping. In some cases a normally vocal animal may become uncharacteristically quiet.


● Depression or mental dullness.


● Changes in house training such as urgency or loss of control, no longer      lifting a leg to urinate or changes in the normal elimination posture.


●A change in facial expression or demeanor such as a generally unhappy or “inward” look, squinted eyes, (this can be a sign of general pain or an injury or infection in the eye) or dilated pupils.



●Painful animals may become generally more crabby and less sociable, although some may become more clingy.


●Cats may stop grooming as much or miss certain areas. You may see changes in litter box habits, especially when they have to go up or downstairs to get to the box or the box is elevated or has high sides.


●A painful or ill cat will often sit hunched like a loaf of bread.


Clearly, almost any subtle change in your pet’s normal behavior or routine could be a symptom of pain or distress. Changes may be sudden or more subtle and gradual. With chronic conditions, pain is often mistaken for “just getting older”. Mild, transient symptoms are not as likely to be a cause for concern, but if the changes you see are persistent or worsening, it is important to have your pet examined by a veterinarian.


The excitement or anxiety of a trip to the vet’s office can further serve to mask the symptoms of pain, but with the help of your observations, our exam findings and sometimes further testing, we can determine the source of the problem. There is much we can do to diagnose and relieve any type of acute or chronic pain so that your animal does not have to suffer. So please do not hesitate to seek help for your pet if you are noticing anything unusual that might indicate that all is not well.