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Our pets have an uncanny way of sensing when something’s wrong with us. Whether we’re under the weather or just feeling blue, they’ll find a way to snuggle next to us until we’re better.

But can we say the same for ourselves as pet parents? Do we intuitively know when something’s amiss with our dogs or cats? If they were in pain, would we know it?

Pets certainly don’t make it easy for us. Many hide the signs of pain, an instinctual urge that protected their ancestors from becoming easy targets in the wild. That’s why, as part of Animal Pain Awareness Month, we’ll share some tips to help you recognize if your pet might be in pain.

Acute vs. chronic pain

Your pet can be affected by different types of pain. Acute pain usually comes on suddenly and tends to be of short duration. Chronic pain, on the other hand, can come on gradually, last for months or years, and may ebb and flow in severity.

If pain goes untreated for any length of time, the nervous system can become overly sensitized to it, lowering the threshold for painful sensation. In other words, a stimulus that normally wouldn’t cause pain, such as a touch on the skin, can result in intense pain.

Localized vs. generalized pain

Pain can be localized to one area of the body, such as the knee in the case of a torn cruciate ligament. The signs may be obvious, such as limping or lameness. A pet with a toothache, for example, may refuse to eat or chew food only on one side of the mouth. Generalized pain, like when you ache all over with the flu, can be more difficult to identify because the signs may be vague, such as lethargy, sleeping more or hiding.

Common signs of pain in pets

  • Lethargy, reluctance to move
  • Hiding or less interaction with family
  • Uncharacteristic aggression or irritability
    (snapping or growling in dogs and hissing, biting or tail flicking in cats)
  • Loss of appetite
  • Panting (dogs)
  • Salivation
  • Whining or crying
  • “Downward dog” position in dogs could be abdominal pain
  • Hunched position in cats could be abdominal pain
  • Squinting or holding eye closed could be eye pain
  • Limping or lameness

Signs you might miss

Still, other behavioral signs of pain in pets might be misinterpreted. For example, you might assume that a cat who urinates outside the litter box has a urinary tract infection. But the cat could have arthritis, and it’s just too painful to climb over the top of the litter box. Similarly, a dog can have accidents in the house if their hips are too arthritic to climb up the stairs to go outside.

You may think that a cat that coughs up hairballs has a digestive problem. But the real cause of the hairballs could be that the cat is obsessively grooming an area that’s painful. If your older cat stops grooming, you might chalk it up to old age when, in reality, your cat has spinal pain that prevents him or her from bending and reaching those areas.

And that purring? It doesn’t always signal happiness. Cats may purr when they’re in pain or fearful, as well.

Be a careful observer

The best way to know if your pet could be in pain is to watch for changes in your pet’s behavior. Does your pet refuse dry food and hold out for canned? Dental pain from broken teeth, abscesses or gum disease could be behind the behavior. Has your cat stopped jumping up to favorite perches? The issue could be musculoskeletal pain. Does your dog avoid being touched on the face? He or she could have a painful ear infection.

If you suspect that something’s up, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian. A video of your pet’s unusual behavior can be helpful. Never try to medicate your pet with human pain medications because many are toxic to pets. Rely on your veterinarian to give your pet a thorough exam and advise you on the safest ways to help keep your pet as pain-free as possible.

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.