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How to tell if your cat or dog is in pain

Our pets can’t tell us when they are sick or injured. They can’t talk to us, and they often instinctively hide any signs of sickness to protect themselves.  The good news is that there are telltale clues that can help you determine if your cat or dog is in pain.

Pain is officially defined by the International Association for the Study of Pain as: “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience …” This broad definition can apply to acute or chronic pain. Acute pain has a specific cause, such as a bruised muscle, that reminds your pet to slow down so they can heal properly. The acute pain stops when healing is complete. Chronic pain, on the other hand, is a disease state that lasts for months or even years. This can be caused by an injury or disease, but can also have no known cause at all. 

The first step in identifying when something is wrong with your pet is to recognize what normal looks like for them. Once you have a behavioral baseline, you can look for any changes in your pet’s usual demeanor. This could be an obvious change, such as limping or obsessively licking a noticeable cut. It is more often something much smaller. 

The minor changes you might notice could be things like a decreased appetite or an increased amount of time spent sleeping. Maybe your dog has stopped running to greet you at the door, or your cat is hiding more often than usual. Perhaps your dog is restless, or your cat is sitting in an unusual position, or they have started whining, whimpering, growling or hissing. Any subtle change in movement, activity, behavior, or even posture could be an indication that they’re in pain.  For more information, check out these simple guidelines produced by the American Animal Hospital Association.  Pain Management for Cats >  &  Pain Management for Dogs >

“Any subtle change in movement, activity, behavior, or even posture could be an indication that your pet is in pain.”

You play a key role in keeping your pet safe. If you start to notice any ongoing behaviors that seem odd for your cat or dog, then it is time to call your veterinarian. Noticing and reporting changes in behavior are the first steps to finding and fixing a health problem. And, the sooner you locate the cause of your pet’s pain, the sooner they can start to feel better.

Veterinarians have years of clinical experience, medical knowledge and access to pain scales, which are very complex tools for diagnosis. These tools allow vet care professionals to quantify behavioral changes and compare your pet’s current state to behavioral reactions of healthy animals that are similar breeds, size and age. From there they can align symptoms with possible causes and recommend a management or recovery strategy.  

You know this animal better than anyone else, so you may be the first one who notices that something is wrong. By paying attention to the small details, you can help your pet feel better and remain healthy.

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pp. 5-6 of Journal small animal practice_Chronic pain
Taken from info from summaries in the painmgmt_dogcathandouts-web.pdf


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