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Pain in pets: what are the signs?

Common signs of pain in cats and dogs

Key points

  • The cause of a pet’s pain doesn’t always result in signs pet parents might expect.
  • Recognizing signs of pain in pets early on improves the chances of the correct diagnosis and treatment.
  • Common manifestations of pain are behavioral, gastrointestinal, postural, and related to changes in movement or body condition.

Recognizing pain in our pets is not only important in helping to keep them as happy as possible but also can help uncover potential problems early on. Saying that, it can be easier said than done!

Firstly, pets tend to try to mask their pain, as a protective mechanism. In the wild, visibly weaker animals (for example those in pain) are more at risk of predation. That’s why animals will often try to mask their pain to keep themselves safe.

Secondly, as much as we’d love them to, pets can’t directly tell us where they’re hurting or why. That’s where your veterinarian comes in! Vets use their training, skills, and experience to diagnose the cause of pain and then prescribe treatment.

When it comes to interpreting pain signs in your pet, it’s important to take all circumstances into account and not to panic straight away, we’ll talk more about this later.

In this article, we’ll describe some signs of pain to keep an eye out for in your pet.

We’ve categorized them into the following categories to help you remember them more easily:

  • Behavioral changes
  • Gastrointestinal system changes
  • Movement and postural changes
  • Body condition changes.

We’ll also explain some causes of pain in pets and what you should do if you think your pet is in pain.

What can cause pain in pets?

As is the case with humans, pain in our pets can be due to a variety of reasons. We’ve listed some causes of pain in pets below:

  • Age – degenerative changes in older pets, or teething in younger pets
  • Events – traumatic events (falling from buildings or being hit by a car), or injury during exercise (something sharp stuck in paw pads)
  • Diseases and health conditions– inflammation, infections, and inherited conditions
  • Veterinary intervention – post-operative pain

What are the signs of pain?

In the next few sections, we’ll uncover some signs that a pet could be in pain. Don’t forget, these signs are relative to your pet’s character, the circumstances, and how long you’ve observed the specific change.

This means, if you notice your pet showing one of these signs, don’t jump to the conclusion that they’re in pain straight away. It could just be that they’re feeling ‘off’ that day or are particularly tired. A lot of these things come down to experience and how well you know your pet.

For example, a dog who’s skipped one meal is not necessarily in pain or in need of a veterinary examination. Whereas a dog who hasn’t eaten for 24 hours or more, or has other signs like vomiting or diarrhea, should undergo a veterinary examination.

Included in our Lifetime Protection Membership and Lifetime Protection Membership Plus is a real-time veterinary support service for pet parents, available 24/7 by phone, live chat and email. So, if you’re unsure whether your pet needs to see a veterinarian, you can get the guidance you need, anytime of the day or night.

Some pets are more prone to vocalization or skipping a meal than others. So, before you worry, try to think about whether any changes you notice are related to particular circumstances. For example, some pets are more affected by change than others and could show signs associated with pain, such as loss of appetite or vocalization whilst being perfectly healthy.

However, there are some emergencies when it’s important to take your pet to a veterinarian as soon as possible, we’ve listed them below:

  • Suspected poisoning (try to bring a sample of poop, urine, vomit, or the possible substance with you)
  • Broken bones
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Loss of consciousness (collapsing)
  • Trauma (hit by a car, or falling from a building)
  • Bleeding
  • Coughing up blood, or blood in the urine, poop, or vomit
  • Burns
  • Ingestion of a foreign object
  • Seizures.

Please note, in this article, we’ll talk about possible signs of pain in pets and not emergencies. If you want to read more about how to help your pet in an emergency, read this article.

Let’s go through some signs of pain in pets.

Behavioral changes

Examples of behavioral changes which could show that your pet is in pain include:

  • Aggressiveness – trying to bite or scratch pet parents, children, or other animals
  • Vocalization – ‘crying’, growling, hissing, or groaning
  • Shaking or trembling - whole body, or a specific region
  • Licking, scratching, excessive grooming, or self-mutilation
  • Restlessness
  • Playing less
  • Decreased tail wagging (dogs)
  • Sleeping more than usual
  • Decreased interactions with people - rubbing on people (cats), sniffing or welcoming you when you return home (dogs)
  • Increased attachment (clinginess)
  • Increased heart or breathing rate – in the absence of exercise or warm weather
  • Depression – being less active than normal and less responsive to the environment (lethargic).

Gastrointestinal changes

Gastrointestinal changes are commonly linked to pain in pets. Unlike other signs of pain which can be localized to the source of pain (such as lameness), gastrointestinal changes are very non-specific.

This means that the following gastrointestinal signs are commonly seen in a range of pet health conditions or diseases that cause pain, even those not directly related to the gastrointestinal system:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting or nausea (often pets drool when they feel sick)

If gastrointestinal manifestations of pain continue over a longer period (chronically), they can also affect your pet’s body condition (we’ll talk about that later).

Movement and postural changes

Unlike some of the other signs of pain we’ve mentioned, movement and postural changes can help pet parents localize a source of pain. For example, lameness caused by a sharp object penetrating your pet’s paw can be resolved by checking your pet and removing the object.

However, it’s not always that easy. For example, sometimes pets with internal diseases can change their posture and lead pet parents to think that a problem is musculoskeletal, rather than internal. An example of this is cats with chronic kidney disease having an arched back or stiffness.

Pain can cause changes in movement and posture such as:

  • Lameness (limping)
  • Stiffness
  • ‘Hunched up’ posture
  • Crouching
  • Difficulty performing movements typically done without a problem – jumping, running, reluctance to use stairs, get into vehicles, enter, or exit their litter box.

Body condition changes

Body condition changes often take more time to develop, so can be an indication of chronic (longer-term) pain. Changes in body condition are not usually direct manifestations of pain but are secondary. A pet in pain can lose weight, not because it’s painful when they eat (for example due to problems with their teeth) but because their appetite is decreased.

Examples of changes in body condition changes which can be signs of pain are:

  • Weight loss
  • Asymmetrical appearance of the body due to muscle atrophy
  • Poor condition of fur or hair.

What should I do if I think my pet is in pain?

If you think your pet is in pain, although it might be hard, try not to panic. Keep calm and try to see if you can recognize and alleviate the source of pain. Do this by checking them and their environment extensively. However, if your pet is in extreme pain (showing multiple signs) or is aggressive, it’s better to leave them in peace.

If you can’t resolve the source of pain, it’s best to contact your veterinarian. By telling them about the signs and any circumstances in detail, they can then decide whether your pet needs to be examined.

Services such as the 24/7 Vet Helpline included in our Lifetime Protection Membership and Lifetime Protection Membership Plus can be especially helpful in a scenario when you’re not sure whether your pet needs immediate veterinary attention.

When talking to a veterinarian about your pet’s condition, try to tell them as much as possible about:

  • Their vaccination status and parasite treatment
  • Any events surrounding the change
  • How long your pet has been acting abnormally
  • The last time they ate, pooped and urinated normally
  • Any medication you gave them recently or any known health conditions
  • Any recent events in the house which could be related to the pain
  • Whether any other animals or people in the house are also affected

The above information will help your veterinarian to diagnose and treat the problem.

Conclusion: signs of pain in pets

Knowledge of your pet’s habits, routines, and usual behavior in addition to being observant, are the best tools for spotting signs of pain in your pet. As we mentioned, the signs described are all relative to your pet’s specificities (age, characteristics, sex) and environment.

If you’ve enjoyed reading this article, read our other articles on pet health below:


The information provided and contained herein are the opinions of Pethealth Services (USA) Inc. which are based on external publication. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinary advice. Pethealth Services (USA) Inc. assumes no responsibility or liability for any loss, claims or damages arising out of the within content.

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