A close-up of a dog's legs walking on pavement outside.

Human babies can emit a high-decibel wail when uncomfortable. A small child can point out an owie on the elbow. But aside from the occasional whimper or yowl, most pets lack the physical or verbal skills to communicate pain.

And many pets — especially those of the feline persuasion — instinctively hide evidence of pain to avoid appearing vulnerable to predators.

So how do you make sure your pet doesn’t suffer in silence? Watch for any changes in your pet’s typical behavior and learn to recognize the often-subtle signs of animal pain. Then consult your veterinarian as soon as possible. Here is how to better understand and detect what they may be going through.

Sources of Pain

Not surprisingly, animals can experience a lot of the same painful medical problems we do. Ever pass a painful kidney stone? It can happen to pets, too. Likewise, dogs and cats can suffer from toothaches, stomachaches, earaches and even cancer pain.

Pets can feel acute pain, or relatively intense pain that comes on quickly and tends to last for a short amount of time — a cracked knuckle or tweaked ankle, for example. But pets aren’t strangers to chronic, or ongoing, pain, either. Both dogs and cats can suffer from achy, arthritic joints that make it difficult to mount or descend the stairs and move around as easily as they did before.

Signs in Dogs

In dogs, the source of pain may be fairly obvious. A dog with a broken nail, which can potentially expose a nerve, may lick obsessively at the paw. A pet that suddenly tears a cruciate ligament in the knee may limp or refuse to put any weight on the affected limb. Dogs may also guard a painful region of the body and growl or show aggression when you attempt to pet that area.

While a dog that doesn’t eat with the usual vigor could be in pain, simply swallowing kibble rather than chewing it may indicate that the mouth hurts.

But other signs of pain can be vague. Pacing, panting and whimpering can indicate that something is amiss. A decrease in family interaction or activity, often assumed to be the normal process of aging, could be the result of pain. Dogs may even take on unusual postures when sitting or lying down to find a more comfortable position.

Cats: The Masters of Disguise

Cats are especially skilled at hiding their pain. While there are a few that may hiss, howl, or flick their tail in irritation, most felines rarely complain. So how do you know if your cat hurts?

The signs are often vague, such as hiding or reduced interaction with the family. Some cats may groom less, because stretching may be uncomfortable, or they may groom more, which can lead to patches of skin devoid of fur. Other cats may lose their appetite or seem finicky.

Some cats may have accidents outside the litter box, not because they’re seeking revenge on you but because it may be painful to urinate or lift a sore leg over the edge of the box. Cats with arthritis may walk stiffly or simply refuse to jump up on the cat tree they used to adore.

Bring Your Pet Relief

If you suspect your pet may be in pain, don’t attempt to use over-the-counter human medications such as aspirin. Although these drugs are relatively safe in humans, some can be deadly in pets.

Instead, consult your veterinarian. Often, the doctor can find the source of the pain, such as a broken tooth, so the problem may be easily remedied. In other cases — such as arthritis —medications, special diets or small changes around the house can help restore your pet’s comfort. And that will make you both feel better.

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.