Recognizing Pain in Pets

Vikki Johnson, CVT
Veterinary Information Specialist
Pet Poison Helpline®

Would you know if your dog or cat is in pain?  Sometimes I think it would be helpful if my dog Howie could talk, but other times I’m happy he can’t (e.g. squirrel!).

Since our pets cannot verbally tell us if they are painful, we need to watch for signs that can be subtle, come on slowly, and may be difficult to notice. Animals in the wild need to hide their pain and weakness from predators; our pets still respond to this instinct thousands of years after being domesticated.

Signs of pain can vary depending on whether the pet is a cat or a dog, the breed of the pet, and the kind of pain the pet is experiencing. For example, dental pain is different than a broken bone but both of these issues can cause the pet to exhibit clinical signs of pain.  Acute or sudden pain may be easy to see like limping after jumping off the couch, but arthritis or joint pain may be harder to detect. An arthritic pet may show nearly imperceptible signs like slowness when standing after sleeping. Our goal as their owner is being able to realize they are in pain so we can seek veterinary care for our painful pets when needed.

Signs of pain in Dogs: Signs of pain in Cats:
Anxiety Shaking or trembling Hiding Decreased grooming
Agitation/Restlessness Decreased appetite Tail flicking Decreased appetite
Self-mutilation Vocalization (whining, whimpering, growling) Squinting Hissing, spitting, growling
Rapid respiratory rate  


Decreased activity or change in activity

If you are seeing any of the above signs or if something just does not seem right with your pet it is always best to contact your regular vet or an emergency clinic. Your dog or cat may not show the signs of pain at the clinic due to their excitement of being there. Don’t worry because your veterinarian understands this behavior.  Just make sure to discuss all the things you were seeing at home to help them determine the cause and, if able, bring a cellphone video of the signs of pain your pet was exhibiting at home that are of concern for your veterinarian to see too!  Your vet will perform a physical examination on your pet and may watch them walk or move. They also may need to do further testing to determine the cause of your pet’s pain and then can provide the best treatment.

Human pain medications are NOT recommended for your dog or cat unless they are prescribed by your vet. Many of the over-the-counter medications like acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil), and naproxen (Aleve) can be toxic to dogs, especially in the wrong dose. Cats are even more sensitive to these drugs and to aspirin also. It is better to keep the pet quiet and not give medications until you can contact your vet for an appointment or further advice.