How do I know if my pet is in pain?

This is a very common question… and it does not have an easy answer.

An entire book could be written about pain!

A cat and dog cuddling in the snow

Instead of a book, here are some general, practical guidelines.

1. Limping

This is one of the most difficult message to convey. Yet it’s simple.

LIMPING = PAIN – 99% of the time.

2. Decreased activity

If your pet suddenly or progressively doesn’t play as much or as long as usual, it’s important to find out why.

3. Difficulty in stairs

To simplify, going downstairs puts more pressure on the front legs, so they may be the issue.

And going upstairs puts more pressure on the back legs, so they may be the source of the problem.

4. Changing habits

If your dog runs like a maniac to greet you when you come back from work every single time, and progressively or suddenly doesn’t, why is that?

If your cat loves napping on a window sill to enjoy the sun, every single day after breakfast, and doesn’t anymore, why is that?

If your dog loves going on a walk, or a run, or a bike ride, and doesn’t anymore, why is that?

5. Difficulty jumping

If your pet routinely jumps on the couch, or your bed, on in your car, or on a chair, and suddenly or progressively doesn’t as easily, it may be because of pain.

6. Difficulty getting up

Struggling to get up after a nap or in the morning, or stiffness in the legs, can also be a sign of pain or arthritis.

7. Change in appetite

Painful pets often lose their appetite, even for a favorite treat. It could be sign of pain in a leg (difficulty walking to you or to the bowl), or neck pain (reaching the bowl, which may need to be elevated), or pain in the mouth or in the teeth.

8. Not wanting to be touched

Pain can lead to “guarding” a leg or the belly, or becoming “head shy”. A classic example is a pet with ear pain or an ear infection (e.g. Cockers). Similarly, no longer wanting to be petted or picked up is a sign to take seriously.

9. Hunched position

A hunched position can be a sign of belly pain or back pain. Either way it can be very serious.

10. Reluctance to move a body part

This can apply to legs, and also to the neck. If your dog doesn’t like moving the neck up, down or to the side, and tend to look at you without moving the head, it can be a sign of neck pain.

11. Hiding

Cats are notorious for this. Either they hide, or they sleep in unusual places.

12. Grooming changes

Not grooming as much, or over-grooming or licking a particular body part can also be a sign of pain or arthritis.

13. Vocalizing

Crying or vocalizing may be a sign of pain, but PLEASE do not count on that to decide your pet is in pain. Many pets, if not most, will not cry when in pain.

14. Aging

Just kidding!

As I always say, “age is not a disease.” While slowing down can be normal, just like in people, limping or being in pain is not.

We can successfully treat countless conditions we were unable to help with before. You no longer have to accept your pet no longer playing or not wanting to go on walks because he or she is “just getting old.” It’s probably because they are painful or have arthritis. Both can and should be treated!

15. Off

Nobody knows your pet as well as you do! Sometimes, a subtle change, a gut feeling, a new routine, can give you an indication that something’s off.

Trust your instinct. Don’t brush it off. Ask yourself – or you vet – what this is happening. Everything happens for a reason in the pet world!

Here are a few more important points to keep in mind:

1. Hiding

Animals are very good at hiding when something is wrong. Remember, in the Wild, if an animal acts sick, they get eaten. Sadly, our pets have kept this ability. Cats are notorious for that.

2. Expression

Pain and its expression can vary dramatically from breed to breed, and from pet to pet. We know for a fact that some pets are more stoic, and others are more… “sensitive”.

3. Surgery

In my world as a surgeon, surgery is a classic way to help painful patients. Fixing a broken leg, repairing a torn ACL or removing a cancerous mass are just a few examples.

4. No surgery

But keep in mind that there are many ways to decrease or stop the pain without surgery including: weight loss, cold therapy, heat therapy, joint supplements, environmental changes, improving traction, acupuncture, harnesses, physical therapy, massage etc.

5. Warning

Please do NOT give any medication over the counter, or any human medication, or leftover medication from this or another pet, unless directed by your veterinarian.

Many human drugs are toxic to our pets, even deadly.

Something as “simple” as aspirin is a huge problem in a pet because:

1. We cannot give a better, safer, stronger anti-inflammatory drug for 7 days after stopping the aspirin and

2. If surgery is necessary, we cannot perform it safely for 7 days because aspirin thins the blood and increases the risk of bleeding!

A pile of multi-colored pills

ANY source of pain should be a reason to see your family vet or a board-certified surgeon.

As I always say, “pain is not acceptable.”

Pain should be taken very seriously – and vets are here to help you, help your pet.

Phil Zeltzman, DVM, DACVS, CVJ, Fear Free Certified

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Dr. Phil Zeltzman

Dr. Phil Zeltzman is a traveling veterinary surgeon in Pennsylvania & New Jersey. An award-winning author, he loves to share his adventures in practice along with information about vet medicine and surgery that can really help your pets. Dr. Zeltzman specializes in orthopedic, neurologic, cancer, and soft tissue surgeries for dogs, cats, and small exotics. By working with local family vets, he offers the best surgical care, safest anesthesia, and utmost pain management to all his patients. Sign up to get an email when he updates his blog, and follow him on Facebook, too!