Is my pet in pain?

Is my pet in pain?

Our pets are not furry humans- they use their own, non-vocal ways to communicate pain. Read on for some tips for recognising pain in your pets

Thursday 17th August 2017

Here’s the tricky thing - mostly, we humans associate pain with a vocal response - a cry, whimper, or grunt (expletives in my case!), and we are generally very good at letting everyone around us know when we are in pain. However, when a pet is in pain or discomfort, they communicate in very different ways - it may not be what you think!

Many times, I have had my clients tell me that although their pet has started limping, ‘she never cried or complained and she still wanted to come with me for a walk, so I know she’s not in pain’. Unfortunately, this is not true. When I examine the pet, they will rarely cry when I touch the uncomfortable areas, not even a whimper. But, if I watch closely, they will often tell me in other ways that it hurts: licking lips, changing from open mouth breathing to closed mouth, looking at me or the area I’m touching. It is looking for these subtle behaviours that help you and your vet care team determine if your pet is in pain or discomfort.

What is pain and what causes it?

Pain is a messenger: It tells us that there's a problem and that we need to take care of it. Pain is the body’s response which warns the animal of danger. NOCICEPTION is the term we use to describe the normal response to a nasty stimulus which could be damaging to normal tissue, such as inflammation, infection, trauma (cuts or abrasions).

Pain itself can be caused by many different things - disease, trauma, surgery, infection, inflammation, or be secondary to an illness or debilitating condition, all of which affects the body.

We classify pain as either acute or chronic – Acute pain is the sharp and distressing sensation you feel, like when you cut your finger or drop something on your toes; whereas chronic pain usually lasts a long time, causing constant dull ache or discomfort, like an aching back. Because of its nature, chronic pain maybe incorrectly accepted as part of the normal process of aging - when the pet is ‘slowing down’.

Do our pets feel pain?

They absolutely do! In fact, cats and dogs have shown to suffer pain in similar ways as we do. So, if it’s painful for you, chances are, it would be painful for your pet.  Though we may process pain the same way, pets will hide pain as an evolutionary trait to protect themselves. Therefore, it may be very difficult to pick up the subtle behavioural changes even when they are hurting.  

How do we know they are in pain?

When our furry friends feel pain, they most often show changes in behaviour. Looking at various behaviours, responses and appearances of an animal is more reliable in identifying pain or discomfort than focusing on a single aspect, such as vocalisation. Here are some of the signs to look out for from the International Veterinary Academy of Pain Management1

Common Signs of Pain in Dogs

  • Decreased social interaction
  • Anxious expression
  • Submissive behaviour
  • Refusal to move
  • Whimpering/ Howling
  • Growling
  • Guarding behaviour
  • Aggression or biting
  • Decreased appetite
  • Self-mutilation (chewing)
  • Changes in posture

Common Signs of Pain in Cats

  • Reduced activity
  • Loss of appetite
  • Quiet/ loss of curiosity
  • Changes in urinary/ defecation habits
  • Hiding
  • Hissing or spitting
  • Lack of agility/ jumping
  • Excessive licking/ grooming
  • Stiff posture/ gait
  • Guarding behaviour
  • Stops grooming/ matted fur
  • Tail flicking
  • Weight loss

These changes in daily habits, activity, grooming, interactions, vocalisations, and aggression as well as changes in appearance - body position and facial expressions, are indications that something is going on and it needs to be investigated.

A common misconception: “Nah, my pets are just getting old, it’s normal for them to slow down and limp a little.”

Aging is not a disease, but pain is. No one should suffer in pain, and neither do our pets! Both short and long-term health of your pets are important to their overall well-being and needs to be taken care of. If you have ANY doubts that your pet might be in pain, please reach out to us. Let us work together to find the cause and manage the condition.

What should we do about it?

Please do not try and treat pain yourself. Many forms of human pain relief can be dangerous to dogs and cats!

Pain occurs for many different reasons and this means there are many combinations of medical and physical therapy (including non-drug therapies) available, depending on the cause and your pet’s needs. to help alleviate pain and help them feel more comfortable. For example, physiotherapy allows us to combine several manual techniques (such as joint mobilisations and massage) and modalities such as laser, laser-puncture, PEMF (Assisi Loop), TENS and thermal therapy (heat or cold) to modulate pain2.

The Paws in Motion team will work in close association with your family veterinarian to recommend medication and treatment so your pet can remain as comfortable as possible.

To better tailor our programs for your pets, we utilise Canine and Feline pain score charts to help us to assess pain in your pet. Similar scoring systems are also available to assess pain in other pets, such as rabbits.

Want to know more about how and why pain occurs? Read on for the sciencey bit3

As we mentioned, nociception is the term we use to describe the body’s response to a noxious stimulus, but how does this occur? Nociceptors are pain receptors which are located throughout the body in the skin, muscles, bones, joints, liver, gastrointestinal tract and other organs. The animal’s body processes this information from the nociceptors in the following way:

  • Transduction of pain

    The nociceptors throughout the body can detect mechanical (pressure, swelling, cuts, tumours), thermal (burns), and chemical (toxins, infections) noxious stimuli.

  • Transmission of pain

    This occurs as the pain perceived by the nociceptors passes the message to the spinal cord. The spinal corod transmits the message to the brain stem and then connections move through the areas of the brain.

  • Perception of pain

    The perception of pain occurs when the multiple areas of the brain are activated and responses are made by the body. Eg: motor responses which tell the muscles to move away from the pain causing stimuli; interpretation of sensations and linking to past experiences of pain; emotional and behavioural responses such as the animals’ mood.

  • Modulation of pain

    Here the brain tries to inhibit or change the transmission of pain to the spinal cord by changing the chemical communicators (neurotransmittors) between the nerves. It can either increase or decrease the transmission of pain. For example, the release of endorphins when we ask if our pet wants to go for a walk may temporarily decrease pain. Unfortunately, with persistent pain, ‘wind-up’ can occur, which escalates the pain the animal feels.

Because so many areas of the brain are involved in pain perception, this is why our pets show pain in many and varied ways, many of which affect their behaviour.

  1. The International Veterinary Academy of Pain Management. Available at:
  2. Epstein, ME, Rodan, I, etal, ‘2015 AAHA/AAFP Pain Management Guidelines for Dogs and Cats’, Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery. Available at:
  3. Wood, S, 2008, ‘Anatomy & physiology of pain’, Nursing Times. Available at:

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