Is my cat or dog in pain?
This is a difficult question. While those of us involved in veterinary medicine find it somewhat intuitive to assess the pain level of animals- that intuitiveness comes from many years of observing animals in states of discomfort and pain and is not easily defined. We know that injuries and surgeries cause pain, and that many procedures that we do as veterinarians cause pain to our patients (that’s the worst part of our jobs!)
When we give analgesics in the hospital, it is very obvious when our patients relax and are no longer in pain. When we treat emergencies such as fractures or dog-fight wounds or lacerations, we get to see the animals recover from the pain. Pain management is a changing art and we are learning more about it all the time.
Animals are hard-wired to avoid showing pain. They exist in a predator-prey world where the weakest (wounded or starving, etc) animals will be eliminated by stronger animals or left behind to die. We have all seen the videos of the lions that watch the herd and attack the weakest ones.
Animals hide their pain and often hide themselves to prevent their pain from being discovered.
This is a behavioral change that you can watch for to find out if your dog or cat is in pain.
Signs of Pain in Cats and Dogs
Here are some questions to assess if your cat or dog is in pain:
Is your cat or dog sleepless, restless, seeking cover, hiding, depressed, sluggish, withdrawn, staying still, twitching, shaking, have tremors? All of these can be signs of pain in cats and dogs.
Is your cat or dog’s heart rate increased? Respiration rate increased? Panting?
Is your cat or dog tense? Does it resist handling? Is it aggressive? Sometimes, with severe pain, your cat or dog’s pupils may be dilated.
Does your cat or dog have abnormal posture? Does your cat of dog have abnormalities of their gate? Are they wobbly when they walk? Are they lame in a certain leg? Lameness ALWAYS equals pain (unless it’s neuropathy which is very rare).
Is your cat or dog licking, chewing, biting, scratching, rolling, writhing or kicking? These are all indications of discomfort and pain.
Is your cat flicking its tail? The most common reason cats flick their tail is irritation or pain.
Evaluate your dog or cats facial expressions. Do they look normal? Are they bright, active and alert? Do they respond normally? If their ears are back, their facial expressions pinched, their heads lowered, curled up in a defensive posture, all of these can mean pain.
Just because a cat is purring does not mean it is not in pain! Cat’s purr sometimes to soothe themselves in distressing or painful situations.
Vocalization is one way a cat or dog can exhibit pain. Many clients come to me when their cats are suddenly very vocal and I always look for sources of pain.
Because assessing pain in cats and dogs is difficult, sometimes people ASSUME their cat or dog is NOT in pain when it is. Cats and dogs can’t grab us by the hand and show us their pain nor can they scream at us about their pain.
An example of this is oral or dental pain. Animal’s teeth accumulate tartar, decay and abscessed teeth without regular dental care. This periodontal disease ALWAYS produces pain, sometimes very severe pain that cannot be discerned by caring owners. Dental problems are very painful and need to be fixed. I can’t tell you how many times my clients come to me after their animals get adequate dental care and tell me that their pet “seems like a new pet, has a new lease on life!”
Sometimes the only way of telling how much pain your pet is in is to take the pain away and see how much their behavior changes! When in doubt I administer an anti-inflammatory and see if the behavior changes- if the lameness goes away or the animal relaxes.
Most dogs and cats develop painful arthritis as they age. These animals needs to be on anti-inflammatory medications, just like we do when we have chronic pain.
The easiest way to assess pain in your animal is to tell your veterinarian your concerns and have them do an examination. Human pain relieving medications are toxic to animals so you MUST see a veterinarian to obtain appropriate pain relief. Be sure to discuss the risks and benefits of the medications as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications do not come without some risks.
A proper assessment and pain relief can make a huge difference in the quality of life for your animal. Long live happy animals!