Your dog or cat can feel pain in all the ways you do. Maybe it’s the throbbing of a sore tooth. The dull ache from an old knee injury. Or the sharp stab of a cut on a paw pad. The difference with pets’ pain is that they don’t always tell you when it hurts.
Like animals in the wild, pets may hide signs of pain to prevent them from appearing vulnerable to predators. That’s why it’s your job to keep close tabs on your pet and notice when something may be wrong. If your pet isn’t as active as they used to be, don’t write it off as just part of the natural aging process. Any change in your pet’s behavior could be a sign of pain.
Acute vs. chronic pain
In medicine, most pain is classified as either acute or chronic. Acute pain tends to come on suddenly or lasts for a short time, dissipating once inflammation resolves and healing occurs. It’s often brought on by trauma, surgery or an inflammatory condition, such as an illness.
If you twist your ankle, for example, you’ll probably feel immediate pain, which will improve once you prop up that leg on a pillow and allow the swelling to resolve. It’s important to recognize acute pain and treat it immediately, or acute pain can become chronic.
Compared to acute pain, chronic pain is more complicated and generally lasts longer, sometimes even for the pet’s lifetime. Osteoarthritis is one condition that can cause chronic pain, because the disease can’t be cured and tends to progress over time.
Left untreated, chronic pain can snowball. The animal’s brain can become so sensitized to pain that a nerve signal meant to relay a small amount of pain is perceived as being much more painful. Early recognition and treatment of pain is important to prevent this exaggerated form of pain perception from developing.
Acute pain may be treated by resolving the source of the problem, such as removing a fractured tooth or resting the affected area and/or a short course of veterinary pain relief medications. Chronic pain, on the other hand, is typically managed with a combination of treatments which may include medications, physical therapy and other interventions.
Signs of pain in pets
Sometimes, it can be obvious that your pet is in pain. Maybe they’re limping on a bad foot or pawing at a broken tooth. But since pets often will try to hide pain, the signs can be subtle. Since you know your pet better than anyone, you’re the best person to recognize when your dog or cat is a little “off.”
Possible signs of pain (both acute and chronic) include:
- Whining, whimpering or groaning (dogs)
- Meowing, hissing or even purring (cats)
- Decreased appetite
- Withdrawal or hiding
- Obsessively licking or biting at a body part
- Reluctance to move
- No longer jumping up or using the stairs
- Seeking affection more than usual
- Dilated (enlarged) pupils
- Flattened ears
- Aggression in a normally friendly pet
- Guarding a body part
How to help your pet
- Schedule a veterinary exam as soon as possible — The doctor will try to determine the source of the pain and possible treatment.
- Give veterinary prescriptions as directed — Try not to miss a dose and call your veterinarian if your pet shows evidence of any side effects.
- Keep a pain journal — Note how often your pet seems to be in pain, and if possible, videotape the painful behavior for your veterinarian to observe.
- Make your pet more comfortable at home — Depending on the source of your pet’s pain, small changes can be made to help your pet’s well-being. For example, pets with arthritis may benefit from a padded bed and ramps to make it easier to get into the car or onto furniture.
- Don’t give your pet any human medications — Some can be dangerous for pets, so always consult your veterinarian first.
- Keep your pet at a healthy weight — Extra pounds can put additional stress on painful, arthritic joints.
Whether it’s acute or chronic pain your pet is dealing with, if you pay attention to the signs, there’s almost always something you can do to make them feel better.
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The information in this blog has been developed with our veterinarian and is designed to help educate pet parents. If you have questions or concerns about your pet's health or nutrition, please talk with your veterinarian.