Thursday, March 1, 2012

How to Know if Your Pet is in Pain

By Langley Cornwell

Years ago I was away on a business trip and had a pet sitter stay at my house to help with my two dogs. When I got home, one of my dogs was acting funny. Her energy was low, she wouldn’t eat, and her breathing was labored. Even though there were no visible signs of an injury, I knew immediately that she was in pain. The problem was, I had no idea why (or for how long, the pet sitter hadn’t noticed). Because it was after-hours, we went straight to the overnight emergency clinic. The veterinarian agreed she was in distress but couldn’t make an immediate diagnosis. Because she was also dehydrated, my sweet Lab was put on fluids and pain meds. I was frantic with worry but did take comfort in knowing that she wasn’t in acute pain any longer.  

As hard as this is to imagine, there was a time when veterinarians thought pain was good for animals if they were hurt. The logic was that the pain kept the animal still and quiet, which helped expedite the natural healing process. Fortunately, that belief is antiquated and, as in the case with my dog, vets now practice the opposite.

Pain management for animals is an important issue in veterinary medicine. An animal’s pain is now managed until the pain is believed to be completely gone. The American Animal Hospital Association and the American Association of Feline Practitioners both support the theory that pain management improves an animal’s recovery process in all cases including injury, illness and surgery. Moreover, since pain management reduces the stress an animal feels and increases their sense of well-being, it may help a pet live a longer, more comfortable life.          

The trick comes in being able to determine when your dog or cat is experiencing pain. Of course it’s easy to know pain is present if your pet has undergone surgery or was in a traumatic accident. Absent of the obvious, however, it’s often hard to tell. We all understand that animals are incapable of telling us when something hurts but it’s even more complicated than that. Animals instinctively hide their pain. In fact, cats work hard to mask all signs of pain in order to protect themselves from potential predators. Therefore, it’s our job as responsible pet owners to recognize when our dog or cat is in pain. It’s also our job to do something about it.

Only you really know how your pet acts under normal circumstances. For that reason, you are the most qualified to determine if your pet is in pain. To assist you, there are some common behaviors to look for. When an animal exhibits the following, it may be an indication that he or she is suffering:

• Acting unusually quiet, lethargic, agitated, or unresponsive
• Making unusual noises including whining, whimpering, howling, or constantly meowing
• Biting or showing inappropriate aggression
• Constantly licking or chewing at a particular part of the body
• Behaving in a manner that is out of character
• Flattening his ears against his head
• Having difficulty sleeping and/or eating
• Seeking a lot more attention and affection than usual
• Constantly moving to find the most comfortable position; unable to get comfortable

If you notice any of these behaviors or if your pet acts unusual, see your vet immediately. As with any medical condition, your vet is your greatest partner in recognizing and determining a course of action to help manage your pet’s pain. Pain management requires a team effort and, in doing so, you will have a happier and healthier feline or canine companion.

As for my dog, she had an intestinal blockage that was impossible to detect on an x-ray. She underwent exploratory surgery and they were able to identify and correct the problem. The vets say it was a good thing I noticed her odd behavior, suspected she was in pain, and brought her right in. She recovered and went back to being the rambunctious, loving, precious dog that she was before. That sweet pup and I went on to enjoy many happy, healthy years together.

Photo by Tomas

Read more articles by Langley Cornwell


  1. Excellent. Mom says it is especially important for her to be able to "read" us because as sibes, we tend to be very stoic when it comes to exhibiting that we are in pain. Great clues to watch for, thanks again for all the wonderful posts that you do.

    Woos - Phantom, Thunder, Ciara, and Lightning

  2. What a great service to all of us.

  3. Thank you for this very helpful post!


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