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Signs and Symptoms of Pain in Both Cats and Dogs

There’s a reason that memes about the differences between cats and dogs abound. The stereotypes do 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 those of us in the veterinary community urge you to pay particular attention to your pets, as any change in behavior can often warrant a trip to see us.  There do tend to be distinct differences between the ways that dogs and cats exhibit signs of pain, and we explore those below.

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 so than usual as of late. Your cat might even try to escape due to the pain despite being an indoor pet. Thankfully, though, there are other - albeit subtle - signs of pain in cats that you should always pay attention to, and we list them below:

  • Reduced activity

  • Dilated pupils

  • Weight loss

  • Quietness or lack of curiosity in things that normally pique interest
  • Failure to groom resulting in matted fur, or excessive grooming/licking
  • Unusual gait, inability to walk, or stiffness

    • Tail flicking

    • Tucked belly or legs

  • Guarding behavior

  • Arched or hunched head or back

  • Changes in urinary and/or defecation habits

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

  • Changes in posture, such as a drooped head or slumped body

  • Aggression, irritability, or biting, especially when painful area is touched
  • Crying, screaming, or moaning
  • Hissing or spitting

  • Carrying one leg
  • Limping or lameness
  • Reluctance or inability to jump
  • Decreased interest in food or play


Symptoms of Pain in Dogs

There are some of the same symptoms of pain in dogs as in cats, although signs of pain in dogs tend to be more overt. Some of the things you might see are:

  • Decreased appetite
  • Lying flat for extended periods, reluctance to move
  • Drooped head
  • Unusually submissive behavior

  • Aggression; biting; irritability
  • Refusal to move
  • Hiding or trying to escape

  • Howling

  • Moaning

  • Whimpering

  • Anxious expression

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

  • Carrying one leg

  • Guarding behavior, or protection of the pained area

  • Lameness or limping

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

  • Unusual gait or inability to walk

  • Reluctance or inability to jump when jumping is a typical behavior


Acute Vs. Chronic Pain

It 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. Humans describe acute pain as sharp, aching, burning, or throbbing. In other words, the onset is usually fast as is the relief from it (within three days or so).  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. As pet owners, it’s far too easy for us to dismiss chronic pain as our cats and dogs simply slowing down due to getting older, but it’s imperative that you don’t disregard any pain in your animals. That’s because early treatment of diseases like arthritis can not only head the conditions off at the pass, but they can also minimize the pain in your precious pets.

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

As we just explained, the best approach to pain in dogs and cats is prevention. if possible, or at least catching whatever is causing the pain at the beginning of the issue or disease. If you notice any significant changes in your dog or cat’s behavior, take your pet to the vet immediately to prevent causing any further pain. If you have been faithful about your wellness exams, you and your veterinarian should have a good baseline to use for comparison.

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