Ask the Vet: How Can I Know if My Pet is in Pain?

By Dr. Donald Consla, Lead Wellness Veterinarian

This question is so important to be able to answer as a pet owner. Oftentimes, most of the pain that our pets experience can go unnoticed but not out of negligence. Animals simply communicate in a different way than we do. They think in a different way and factor in different variables to determine their response to discomfort.

You may expect your animal companion to make some audible exclamation if they are uncomfortable like whining, yowling, crying or growling when a specific area is touched. While these vocal responses can happen, it is usually with more significant discomfort. Animals may use more subtle means of communication that suggest they are uncomfortable.

If we consider a wounded animal in the wild, it may help us understand the difference between human and animal communication. If we tell someone we are in pain, we’ll be met with sympathy and additional care. You might take a pain reliever or a family member may drive you to the hospital. A wild animal, however, does not show that they are in pain. If this were the case, predators would know the animal was weakened and they would be at risk. So, what does the wild animal do? They hide and take a break from normal activities or try to do them in a different manner, and they continue to try to move normally even though this may not be possible. While companion animals have been domesticated for many years, they still have these innate responses when they are in discomfort. For example, if a dog injures their knee, they might try to run but won’t use the affected leg. They will sit with the sore leg underneath their body to protect it. When standing they may look normal but will shift more weight onto the good knee. A cat with chronic pancreatic inflammation which causes an upset stomach may avoid their favorite spot at the top of the cat tree because it is painful to jump up. Or they won’t finish their meal and may hide and urinate outside the litter box.

So how can you tell if your pet is in discomfort? Ask yourself, “If I had these symptoms, would I be in pain or ask for a pain reliever?” If you aren’t sure if your pet is in pain, always consult your veterinarian. The signs of pain in our four-legged friends aren’t always obvious but this article provides you with a different way to look at subtle animal behaviors and determine what they may be trying to tell us!

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