Can you recognize pain in your pet?

By Megan Schneider, DVM

September 2019

September is pain awareness month: can you recognize what pain looks like in your pets?

It may surprise you to know that most of the time our companion animals won’t whine, whimper, howl or yowl when they are hurting. While some pets may vocalize, more often the signs and symptoms of pain can be quite subtle.

Some of the more straightforward signs of pain include: limping, licking, and lip-smacking.

1) Limping: Just like their human compatriots, if a cat or dog hurts their leg, they avoid putting weight on the painful spot. They may walk around with a slight limp, or even hold the paw up and run around on three legs. Even if they are chasing after the ball like nothing happened, if they aren’t using the leg, it’s probably because it hurts.

2) Licking: Dogs and cats may repeatedly lick a sore spot trying to take some of the pain away – think about how you might immediately stick a thumb in your mouth if you accidentally smacked it with a hammer. Somehow it seems to make it feel better! Cats can take this to the extreme – over-grooming a painful area until they lick themselves bald. While even a close exam of the affected area may not reveal any obvious wound, or trauma, it is important to have your pet checked out to make sure there isn’t anything going on under the skin that could be causing pain.

3) Lip-smacking: It’s hard to miss when Fido is constantly making that sl-l-u-r-rping sound. Dogs may lick, or smack, their lips when their mouth hurts, or when their tummy is upset. Both of which may also lead to appetite changes – from not eating at all, to just being a little less enthusiastic about mealtime.

Sometimes the signs of pain are even less obvious and less related to any specific spot on the body. Animals in pain may just be a little more subdued than normal, they may spend more time hiding or sleeping than they did before. However, some animals can become more anxious or distressed – dogs may pant, or pace, even when the rest of the household is quiet, and cats may be more in your face or even eliminate outside of the litter box. The important thing to remember is that our pets can’t talk to us, so if something seems off, it’s a good idea to investigate a little deeper, just to make sure they aren’t trying to tell us it hurts.

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