Subtle Signs That Your Pet May Be Painful


Most pet owners consider their furry friend to be part of their family. The thought that their best mate is in pain would be very traumatic for owners, however, the signs may be very subtle and easy to miss. Many animals have an instinctive protective reflex to not show overt signs of pain and sickness, as these animals tend to be the first targeted by predators. Much of their communication is via body language or smell so they may not tend to vocalise when in pain as a human would. Many owners have trouble understanding this as they observe their animal through human eyes.

Pain plays a major role in how animals behave. The behavioural signs of pain may be similar to those associated with anxiety and distress, and the ability to differentiate between these two states may be very difficult. Owners are often in a better position to assess subtle changes in behaviour as they are most familiar with how the animal behaves normally. Owners often describe a ‘slowing-down’, which they attribute to age, but this may be the result of chronic pain.

Here are several signs that your dog or cat may be in pain:

Decreased appetite

Animals often decrease their food intake as a result of pain. This can result in rapid weight loss. Water intake may also be reduced. This should be assessed in the context of reduced food intake as there are numerous other explanations for decreased appetite.

Less Keen to be Petted – ‘Guarding’

Previously friendly animals may become more distant and likely to avoid being petted especially in certain spots that are painful. Normally pleasant animals may show aggression to avoid the pain from petting an area that is sore. Changes in comfort level may be shown by altered posture when sitting or standing in an attempt to relieve pain.

Excessive Grooming or Licking

Animals may lick, bite, rub or shake a painful area. This may lead to hair loss and even skin disease. Lick granulomas are common in dogs with joint pain whereas overgrooming in cats may occur as a result of back pain. What can start as just hair loss can easily become infected, red skin as a result of pain deeper in structures.

Avoiding Jumping or other Play Activities

Animals that had previously been very playful or active may be described by owners as suddenly slowing down or lack motivation to play. This may be due to pain associated with that activity. Owners often report that their dog is no longer able to jump into the car after many years of being able to do so. Reduced activity in aging cats is often harder to identify as they lead quite sedentary lives regardless of comfort level.

‘Loss of Training’

Some animals that have historically been well toilet trained may start to have accidents inside because they struggle to rise to go outside, they can’t posture appropriately to toilet, or they struggle to get into the litter tray. There are other possible explanations for these occurrences so should be discussed in detail with your veterinarian.

Change in ‘Normal’ Behaviour or Appearance

You may notice changes in how you pet sleeps or sits, even in breathing patterns. The general appearance of the animal may change as your pet struggles to perform normal grooming behaviour due to painful posturing.

Many of these behaviours may be observed with chronic pain, such as that from arthritis. Acute pain tends to be more obvious and distressing. Animals are more likely to vocalise with acute pain. All pain assessments should be made in conjunction with evaluation of the animals personality and suspected pain threshold.