Watch Tip: Learn Signs of Pain in Cats and Dogs

Posted on January 8th, 2012 by Anna Nirva

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Learn to recognize signs of pain in dogs and cats so that you can take appropriate action and prevent extreme suffering. Cats typically mask pain and many dogs do as well. The signs may be subtle but you can recognize them if you are prepared. As you travel through your daily life, be ready to help an animal in distress. You may save a life.

All animals deserve treatment to relieve their suffering

You certainly believe that but be aware that many people do not; they will ignore suffering in their animals. For centuries prevailing wisdom advised that the lesser animals did not feel pain like people do, possibly because people didn’t understand how to read the subtle symptoms of pain. Maybe they were taught to discount what signs they did observe. Remember, veterinary science is a recent innovation.

Cat pain or illness symptoms are particularly difficult to discern and a cat might be critically ill by the time the signs are evident. This sadly happened to our dear adopted cat Lucinda a few weeks ago and this post is dedicated to her memory. By the time she quit eating a day before Christmas Eve, she was already terminally ill, but she didn’t act sick. She slept more over the next two days; sleeping and refusing food were the only signs that she didn’t feel good. We took her to the vet the day after Christmas Day; she seemed weak.  She was diagnosed with severe non-regenerative anemia, cause unknown; her hemoglobin reading was the lowest the vet had seen in all his years of practice. We had to say goodbye. The suddenness of her decline and death was stupifying. We were horrified that we hadn’t provided treatment sooner.

Cats hide pain or illness instinctively. They are unlikely to vocalize when experiencing distress, but some will as pain advances. Know your cat’s routines and habits; be aware of changes. Symptoms of pain or ill health in cats include:

  • Change in routine, personality or activity levels
  • Loss of energy/more sleeping  OR  anxiety/agitation/aggression
  • Sitting on all four paws tucked under body, hunched posture, withdrawn
  • Loss of appetite
  • Rapid breathing or panting, inward expression
  • Favoring of a certain body part; tenderness; licking of sore spot
  • Fur looks unkempt

Read the Colorado State University’s “Feline Acute Pain Scale” to learn more about identifying signs of pain in cats.

Dogs are more variable in their expression of pain. Some dogs and breeds (notably the bully breeds) are stoic while some other individuals will provide many clear evidences of discomfort.

  • Whining or whimpering
  • Panting, rapid breathing, shivering, inward expression
  • Change in routine, personality or activity levels
  • Loss of energy/more sleeping  OR  anxiety/agitation/aggression
  • Loss of appetite
  • Favoring or presentation of a certain body part; tenderness; licking of sore spot

This is the dog version of the Colorado State University’s pain scale.

The most important advice is to know the behavior and habits of your own animals; be watchful and curious. If you are observing possible pain-related behavior of a neighbor’s pet or a stray, advocate for them. Contact your neighbor and describe your observances. Even in a note taped to an entrance works. See the Sunbear Squad “Pocket Poster” you can download and post at your neighbor’s. We have a Spanish language version available too.

If you find a stray that appears to be in pain or ill, take the animal to a vet if you live in an area served by a shelter or pound that you do not trust to uphold humane standards of care. If your area is served by a compassionate organization, contact them.

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