Modern Medicine, Old-Fashioned Care

Sep 15, 2023 | General Health

How to Recognize the Signs of Pain or Discomfort in Your Pet

It can be hard for a pet parent to know when that call to the vet is in order. Maybe the family dog is still woofing down her food, and yet there’s something amiss – something you can’t quite put your finger on. Or the cat is climbing a bit less than normal, but otherwise seems to be getting around just fine. Recognizing the signs of pain or discomfort in your pet isn’t always the easiest thing when “ouch” simply isn’t in their vocabulary.

“I do think that sometimes pet owners struggle to see when their pet is in pain,” says Dr. Jerica Lugo, VMD, of Doylestown Veterinary Hospital. “I think sometimes we expect our pets – particularly dogs – to be quite stoic. So, owners often think a pet is only in pain if they’re crying out or are overly vocal.” And most of the time, Dr. Lugo notes, that’s not actually the case.

In fact, unless something like a broken bone or severe back pain is present, many pets don’t speak up when they’re uncomfortable, Dr. Lugo explains.

“A lot of the time they’re a lot more subtle.”

  1. If your dog or cat is limping, take action.

Dr. Lugo says she sees this frequently with patients: “People wonder if their limping dog is really in pain. They’re not sure if limping signifies discomfort or if it means something is wrong with the leg.”

Imagine you have a rock in the heel of your shoe, she says. Every time you put full weight on your foot, it hits the rock, and your foot hurts.

“You wouldn’t want to put weight on your heel, so you might kind of walk with your feet more toward the toes. Your dog limping is sort of like that. Every time they try to put the full weight down, it hurts. So, they’re kind of just walking gently and gingerly so it’s not causing them pain. A limp, by definition, means something uncomfortable is happening.”

Cats are even more subtle and often don’t even limp when they’re hurting.

“For cats, it’s more that they’re slowing down or they’re not jumping or they’re not exhibiting normal behaviors like climbing the stairs,” Dr. Lugo says. “They’re still very close ancestors to their wilder cousins. And many of our kitties are indoor/outdoor. If they exhibit signs of pain, they risk predators coming after them. So, they’re really good about hiding it.”

  1. Licking, chewing, and excessive grooming can also be a huge sign that pain is present – particularly with dogs.

“Sometimes they’ll excessively lick or chew over a joint that hurts,” Dr. Lugo says, noting that the wrists are a common area. “For whatever reason, dogs tend to lick and chew at that region of the body when they’re uncomfortable. And that can be a sign of arthritis.”

Many pet owners, she adds, don’t consider that the same disease processes that occur in people also happen in our pets.

“Dogs and cats can have sprains, they can pull muscles, they can hurt their backs or their necks,” Dr. Lugo says. “All of those areas of the body where people might feel pain, our pets might, too.”

  1. Watch for silent signs.

Dr. Lugo says it is incredibly important to remain cognizant of anything that seems out of sorts.

In addition to limping and excessive chewing, drooling, panting, and a loss of appetite can all serve as signs of pain or discomfort in your pet.

“The average owner knows when his or her pet is somewhat ‘off.’ If you notice changes in your pet’s behavior, don’t discount that,” she says.

And while it is natural to want to help immediately – Dr. Lugo says pet owners should resist attempting to self-treat an unknown malady with unproven, unnecessary, or even unsafe medications.

“Over-the-counter pain relief can be really unsafe for our pets,” she says. “Many may cause issues like diarrhea or gastrointestinal bleeding or even liver damage.”

Instead, a phone call to a veterinarian should always be the first step when we suspect our animals are hurting.

“It’s best to call your veterinary office right away,” Dr. Lugo says. “They can help you figure out why your pet is acting differently.”