How do I know if my pet is in pain?

This is a question I get asked almost every single day.

If only they could tell us.

The thing is – they do! Just not with words.

Pets have so many ways to show us that they’re in pain, but they might be different to what we expect.

We’re looking for the wrong signs, and because of that, pain often gets overlooked.


Common misconceptions:

  1. She’s not crying, so she can’t be in pain.

Dogs and cats rarely cry in pain. Unless there’s a serious accident or injury, such as a broken leg, or they’ve just been bitten by another animal, it’s unlikely that they’ll cry.

Even pets with broken limbs don’t necessarily cry out in pain.

And pets that are in chronic pain, such as those suffering from arthritis, hardly ever cry.

  1. He’s limping, but he’s not in pain.

There’s a reason for the limp, and it’s almost always pain.

Think about it- when we’re limping, it’s because we’re in pain, and we shift our weight to avoid that pain. It’s the same for dogs and cats.

Rarely, they can have a neurological condition, that isn’t painful in itself.

Nerve signals aren’t sent correctly from the brain to the limb, and it’s functionally impossible for the pet to use their leg properly.

However, this means that other muscles have to compensate, and over time, these will get sore from the extra work.

So even neurological conditions eventually lead to pain.

  1. They can’t tell us where it hurts.

They do! If you know how to look for it.


Signs of pain in dogs and cats:

  1. They’re limping (see above)
  2. They’re more withdrawn/ less enthusiastic
  3. They’re less interested in food
  4. They don’t want to be lifted/ carried
  5. They don’t want to be groomed
  6. They don’t want certain areas of their body to be touched
  7. They eat in a strange fashion, chew more on one side, or drop their food (this can indicate pain in the mouth)
  8. They’re exhausted after short periods of exercise
  9. They pant more than usual
  10. Their muscles ripple on light touch
  11. They have wide, staring eyes (in very stoic animals, this can be the only sign of pain- always take this seriously!)
  12. Their tail hangs down limply
  13. They lick, scratch or rub an area excessively


Finding out where it hurts:

Once you’ve established that your pet is probably in pain, how can you find out where it hurts?

If they’re limping, then it will be the leg that they’re putting less weight on, that hurts.

Rather than going straight for this leg, start to touch and examine other parts of their body.

Examine along their back and their sides- there may be a smaller issue here, that gets overlooked when just focussing on the most visible area of concern.

It also means that your pet gets used to the idea of being checked over, when they may be feeling vulnerable and less tolerant of touch.

If you think you know which part of your pet’s leg is hurting, start at a point further away and gradually work your way closer to the suspected area of pain.

Again, you are more likely to find other areas of concerns, and your pet is more likely to tolerate the exam of the painful area, if you approach slowly and respectfully.

The same approach works for all other areas of the body where you suspect pain.


At all times, observe your pet and take note of how they react.

 Don’t wait for them to cry.

Watch out for their body slightly tensing up.

Check if they’re moving away from you, trying to avoid being touched.


Do take care!


Even the calmest pets may bite when in pain!

Be particularly careful if you suspect a painful mouth. Don’t risk getting bitten!

Notice any discomfort before they feel the need to bite, stop your exam, and allow them to settle down.


What to do next?

If they’re in severe pain, and if they’re not putting one foot down at all, get them seen by your vet straight away.

If it’s not quite as bad, it’s often sensible to rest them for a day or two and allow the body to start to heal itself.

Keep cats indoors and take dogs out only to do their business, no more.

An ice pack on the sore area often works wonders.


How to apply an ice pack:

  • Use a cool pack or a bag of frozen peas, wrap it in a tea towel to avoid direct contact with fur or skin, and gently place it on the sore area.
  • Leave it on for 10 minutes if they will tolerate it.
  • Repeat 2-3 times per day.


Again, check their response and don’t force it.

Very small, thin or old pets may find this uncomfortable. They may need an extra layer of tea towel around the cool pack, and you may find that 10 minutes is too long here.

Always observe your pet.

If they move away or show other signs of discomfort, stop the treatment.

They may be in more pain than they showed.

If in doubt, always get them checked by your vet.


What if they’re already on painkillers from your vet?

If you suspect they’re in pain, then the current treatment regime might not be enough.

Even if it suited them well for a long time, they may need a change now.

Get your vet to reevaluate the pain medication, and find out if they might benefit from other treatments, such as physiotherapy, hydrotherapy, acupuncture and laser therapy.