Signs and Symptoms of Pain in Cats and Dogs

Cute dogThere’s a reason that memes about the differences between cats and dogs abound. The stereotypes tend to be rooted in truth.

Cats have a reputation for being a bit aloof and stoic, while dogs are seen as the lumbering, goofy guys who slobber all over their owners when they return from running a 10-minute errand. And, while there are plenty of exceptions to both those rules, the ideas tend to hold true when it comes to them exhibiting signs of pain.

Dogs tend to be more overt about showing pain while cats are often hard to read, and, in many instances, they’ll simply hide when they’re in pain. That’s why we urge you to pay particular attention to your pets, as any change in behavior may warrant a trip to see us. After all, you know what their "normal" is better than anyone. However, there are some distinct differences between the ways that dogs and cats consistently exhibit signs of pain that may help you.


Symptoms of Pain in Cats

As mentioned above, the biggest sign of pain in your cat is if he or she has been hiding more than usual. Your cat might even try to escape, despite being an indoor pet. But there are other signs of pain in cats that you should pay attention to:

  • Signs of Pain in CatsDecreased interest in food or play
, or generalized reduced activity
  • Dilated pupils

  • Unexplained weight loss
, possibly due to lack of appetite
  • Quietness or lack of curiosity in things that normally pique interest

  • Grooming changes, including failure to groom resulting in matted fur, or excessive grooming/licking

  • Tail flicking

  • Guarding behavior

  • Tucked belly or legs

  • Arched or hunched head or back
 or other changes in posture
  • Changes in urinary and/or defecation habits

  • Reluctance to move or lying flat for long periods of time

  • Aggression, irritability (e.g., hissing and spitting), or biting, especially when painful area is touched

  • Crying, screaming, or moaning

  • Unusual gait, inability to walk, or stiffness
  • Limping, lameness
 or "carrying" a leg (not putting weight on it)
  • Reluctance or inability to jump 


In addition to these symptoms, recent research has produced a pain scale for cats based on their facial expressions (see below). On the left, we see "absent" pain, followed by moderate and then marked. This assessment scale uses ear position, orbital tightening, muzzle tension, whisker tension, and head position to generate a score between 0-10. The higher the number, the greater the pain.

Facial Expression Pain Scale for Cats


Symptoms of Pain in Dogs  

How Can I Tell if My Dog is in Pain?Dogs exhibit some of the same symptoms of pain as do cats, though signs of pain in dogs tend to be more overt. Some of the things you might see are:

  • Decreased appetite

  • Anxious expression

  • Drooped head

  • Lying flat for extended periods, reluctance to move

  • Changes in posture, such as an arched or hunched back

  • Unusually submissive behavior

  • Aggression, biting, irritability 

  • Refusal to move

  • Hiding or trying to escape

  • Howling
, moaning
 and/or whimpering

  • Self-mutilation (chewing or excessive licking of painful area)

  • Lameness, limping or carrying one leg
 (not putting weight on it)
  • Unusual gait or inability to walk

  • Guarding behavior, or protection of the pained area

  • Reluctance or inability to jump


Like humans - and cats! - dogs are individuals, and each one will react to pain in their own way. The key is knowing how your pup acts under normal circumstances, so you can tell when they're experiencing pain and should come to see a veterinarian.


Acute Vs. Chronic Pain

Golden Retriever laying downIt will also help you to understand what acute pain is in comparison to chronic pain, and how this relates to your cat and/or dog.

Acute pain is a reasonable and predictable reaction in response to an injury that should be fairly easy to notice in your cat or dog. The onset of acute pain is usually fast as is the relief from it (within three days or so).  Humans describe acute pain as sharp, aching, burning, or throbbing.

On the other hand, chronic pain persists longer than what one might expect when it comes to healing, and is often associated with progressive diseases such as arthritis. For humans, chronic pain may start slowly and build, so it may be hard to recognize it at first. As pet owners, it’s far too easy for us to dismiss chronic pain as our cats and dogs simply slowing down due to aging, but it’s imperative that you don’t disregard any pain in your animals. Early treatment of pain and its associated diseases may not only be able to stop the condition in its tracks, but it can also minimize (or eliminate) pain in your precious pets.


When Should I Bring My Dog or Cat into the Veterinarian for Pain?

Remember: the best approach to pain in dogs and cats is prevention or very early treatment. If you notice any significant changes in your dog's or cat’s behavior, take your pet to the vet immediately to prevent causing any further pain. We've said before that if you're worried enough to think about taking your pet to the vet, you should probably do it! If you've been faithful about your wellness exams, you and your veterinarian should have a good baseline to use for comparison.

As always, if you have questions or need to make an appointment for your cat or dog, give us a call!


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