How to Know If Your Dog or Cat Is in Pain

SH_Pet-in-pain-blog.jpgWhen you’re in pain, how do you behave? Chances are you talk about it—or, if you’re the strong, silent type, you might retreat to a quiet room and lie down until the pain subsides. 

When your dog or cat is in pain, he obviously can’t tell you about it. Beyond this, unlike people, animals often attempt to mask their pain. Thousands of years of natural selection have taught them that advertising illness or pain could put their lives at risk with potential predators. Although your pet can’t tell you he’s in pain, and even though he might try to hide it from you, there are tell-tale signs that he’s hurting. 


Some types of pain in your dog are relatively easy to spot—for example, limping or whining are observable canine responses to pain. Other symptoms are less obvious. If you notice your dog doesn't seem to "be himself," look for one of the following seven behaviors, which could signal that he’s in pain:

  1. Increased vocalization.
    Dogs tend to make more noise when they’re in pain, including yelping, whimpering, whining—and even growling or snarling. Unless you can identify some other cause for increased vocalization, this might be a sign that he needs to see the vet.
  2. Increased grooming.
    Dogs lick wounds to clean them, but they also lick a given area when the pain is internal rather than on the surface. They may also lick their paws and rub their eyes if they’re experiencing pain in their eyes. Excessive, localized grooming is behavior typical of dogs in pain.
  3. Changes in behavior.
    One response to pain is an increase in sleep (because the pain makes it difficult to move around), or changes in eating or drinking behavior, or in the way he breathes. If your dog seems to lose his appetite, or is drinking more or less water than normal, it could be a sign he’s in pain. Increased panting (not associated with exercise), or breathing that appears faster or shallower than normal, can mean that breathing is painful.
  4. Squinting and changes in pupils.
    If your dog is squinting, or when his pupils become smaller, he could be having pain in his eyes. When the pain is in another part of the body, his pupils may become bigger.
  5. It’s difficult for him to remain at rest.
    When dogs are in pain, they often find it hard to sit or lie down for long periods of time. If your dog seems restless, continually moving from a lying to a standing position, or if he seems to be lying in an unusual position, it could be a sign of pain.
  6. Changes in affection patterns.
    Dogs who are in pain sometimes will begin to avoid contact with you or no longer seek your affection as they normally would. Alternately, he might want more attention and affection. 
  7. Aggression.
    When animals are wounded or otherwise in pain, they might try to protect themselves by displaying aggressive behaviors. For dogs, this kind of behavior usually manifests as growling, pinning their ears back, and, in some cases, even biting. 

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Cats are especially adept at masking their pain, making it more difficult for their owners to know that something’s wrong. There are, however, observable behaviors, albeit subtle, which signal the experience of pain in cats, including the following seven:

  1. Behavioral changes.
    Normally active cats who become inactive, perhaps sleeping much of the day, could be in pain. Alternately, typically sedate cats who become “hyper” could be reacting to pain. Any substantial change in behavior might signal pain or illness.
  2. Not wanting to be touched.
    Most cats like human touch. If your normally affectionate cat growls or swats at you when you try to pet or stroke him, it could be because of pain.
  3. Hiding.
    Hiding is another way cats mask their pain to make themselves less vulnerable to predators. If you find yourself searching for you cat inside your home, he could be in pain.
  4. Excessive grooming.
    Like dogs, cats tend to lick areas where they feel pain. Excessive grooming could be a sign of a urinary tract infection (idiopathic cystitis), especially if the licking is in the stomach area.
  5. Cessation of grooming.
    The opposite can also be a sign of pain. Cats pride themselves in staying clean. Self-grooming becomes more difficult when your cat is in pain. If you notice your cat becoming greasy or scruffy, it’s time to take him to the vet.
  6. Hunching.
    Cats in pain sometimes sit in a hunched position, typically with their feet tucked under them. They may also walk in short strides and in a hunched position. This change often signals pain.
  7. Trouble using the litter box.
    If your cat has pain in his back or hips, it becomes more difficult for him to use his litter box because he can’t easily get into the right position to go. If you notice urine or feces in unusual places (such as on the sides of the litter box), pay close attention, as this could be a sign of pain in the back or the hips.

The observable behaviors noted here can be signs that your dog or cat is in pain—but they could also mean something else. Attempting to diagnose the root of the problem on your own can actually make matters worse. Any time you notice substantial changes in the way your pet behaves, you need to take him to your family veterinarian as soon as possible.

At South Boston Animal Hospital, we know how to evaluate and test your pet to find out what’s wrong and provide the appropriate treatment to make him well again. To learn more about our veterinary services—or to schedule an appointment—contact us today.