While pain in dogs and cats is as prevalent today as it was in past decades, advances in veterinary medicine are making it easier to assess, identify, and treat animals in pain to ensure good long-term pet health and quality of life. Pet owners can help by learning to read the signs of pain in their dogs and cats.

Watch for behavioural changes

“The most common indicators of pain in dogs and cats are loss of normal behaviours and gaining of abnormal behaviours,” says Dr. Walt Ingwersen, President of The World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA). “There are also nuances in how animals respond to pain that are important for people to recognize,” he says. For example, “animals will respond differently to acute pain, like an injury or surgery, than they will to chronic pain — and dogs respond differently than cats.”

Because dogs tend to be more emotionally attached to their owners, and to do more physical activities like walking, hiking and playing fetch, the subtle signs of pain are usually more obvious.

Cats, on the other hand, tend to be more sedentary, individual and agile, making it easier for them to hide their pain and harder for their owners to recognize it. 

A common cause of chronic pain in dogs and cats is osteoarthritis, which progresses as the animal ages. “The dog may become a bit grumpier and less tolerant around rambunctious children, who may interact with the dog through hugging, holding, and grabbing,” says Dr. Ingwersen. Or the dog may repeatedly lick a sore joint area in an attempt to relieve the discomfort. Other signs are holding a leg up, not running as fast, or losing that zest for chasing a ball.

A cat with chronic pain may no longer jump directly onto the kitchen table or counter, but climb with the aid of a stool or chair. The cat may groom more often, trying to alleviate pain in a certain area, or less often to avoid an area that’s now painful to reach. Changes in litter box behaviour are another indicator. “Cats like to keep their environment clean,” says Dr. Ingwersen, “so if the cat’s not using the box, it may be that it’s now painful for him or her to go down a flight of stairs if the litter box is in the basement, or the box itself may be too high to jump into.”

By recognizing these behavioural changes, owners can help their veterinarian accurately assess the animal’s pain and its origin, and design an appropriate treatment plan. For example, telling the vet that your dog is eating on one side of its mouth would signal to the vet to check for a possible dental problem.

Response to treatment — the gold standard

There are many veterinary pharmaceutical options that are available, as well as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) that offer effective pain management in animals. Determining the appropriate choice and dose should be done in consultation with the vet.

Gauging treatment effectiveness comes down to answering one simple question: does the animal respond? If your dog’s enthusiasm for his fetch game returns or your cat is starting to annoy you again by jumping on the kitchen counter as you make dinner, chances are your pets’ pain is under control.

Our ability to read our pets’ behaviour empowers us to be better advocates for them. So if you see changes in their behaviour, don’t ignore it — explore it.