If you’ve been thinking that your pet has recently turned into a bit of a grouch it could be that they’re actually in pain, but how would you know? It can sometimes be difficult to tell, and if the obvious signs such as limping or wounds aren’t present then you’ll need to know what to look for. Some animals simply hide their pain and live with it, but there are actually a number signs that something could be wrong in spite of how subtle they may be. In cats, it can be even more difficult to detect, and in some cases pain will only be obvious in the most extreme circumstances.


Signs that they could be in pain

Nobody wants to see their pet suffering, and things to look for if the more obvious signs aren’t present include changes to their breathing, heart rate, or behaviour. Sometimes you’ll notice a change to how they look as well, and while this varies from animal to animal, owners can usually tell when their pet simply doesn’t look well.


The first important point to note when assessing your pet for pain, is that there’s a chance of being bitten. Even if your dog or cat would never normally bite you, moving or touching a painful part may cause this instinctive reaction. Be careful to avoid getting someone who is helping you bitten as well.


Animals in pain may breathe faster and their breathing might be shallower as well. It may cause dogs to pant and you might see a change in the movement of their chest or abdomen when breathing, as muscles in both are used.


How to check your pet’s pulse

Animals in pain may have an increased heart rate or pulse. These might change noticeably when the painful area is touched or moved. Listening to the heartbeat via a stethoscope as your vet would, is not the only way to check the pulse, as it can also be felt with your fingers. To check the pulse of a dog, place your hands low on their chest near the elbow joint, and feel the heart beats. Count the beats for 15 seconds and multiply by four. You can also find the pulse high up on the inner side of the thigh.  To check a cat’s pulse, feel for the heartbeat with one hand over the left side, just behind the front leg.  Remember not to use your thumbs – by using your index, middle, or ring finger you will be less likely to mistake your own pulse as your pet’s.


Between 70 to 140 beats per minute is the normal range for dogs. Generally, the larger the dog the slower the pulse, and puppies – who have faster pulses – will usually have up to 220 beats per minute. The range for cats is 120 to 160 beats per minute. Next time you’re at the vet ask one of the clinical team to show you how to check and measure your pet’s heart rate and/or pulse, as it can be helpful in detecting other signs of illness as well.


Posture and mobility can provide clues

A change in posture can indicate pain in dogs, and they might stand with a stiffness and assume stance like a sawhorse.  Alternatively, they could point their backsides in the air while their front legs are on the ground thereby stretching their abdomen. Lying down more than normal, or restlessness as they struggle to find a comfortable position, can both be signs that they’re in pain. The type, location, and severity of the pain will influence the postural change but it’s an important sign to watch for. An arched or sunken back, or a change to the posture of a tail could also be indicators of pain.  In cats, the postural signs include being hunched-up, having a lowered head, or a flicking tail.


For both dogs and cats, mobility changes could be signs of pain, and animals experiencing it will often move around less. Another thing to watch for is a change to their mobility even if there is no change to frequency. Moving around as often as usual but more slowly or with a limp, can be indicators of pain. Changes to their gait or speed when going up or down stairs could also be signs.


Animals in pain will most likely have a general decrease in their activity level. This often shows as pets sleeping more and playing less. In dogs, it may manifest in a reduction in running and jumping, and in cats, it can lead to a reduction in jumping and rubbing against people.


Changed routines can be signs that something’s wrong

Dogs and cats in pain may have changed toileting routines. Back pain may cause difficulty with the posture required when defecating, therefore they may struggle to go to the toilet. Back pain can therefore lead to constipation in addition to the slowed motility of the intestines as a result of pain.


Changes to your pet’s body contours are also something to watch for. They can be signs of swelling, inflammation or infection, and all can cause pain. Keep an eye out for them in the more commonly occurring places such as the legs, body, and face, but bear in mind that they can occur anywhere.


Eyes can be good indicators of pain, and in dogs the eyes can change when eye pain itself is experienced or when pain is experienced elsewhere in the body. Depending on the underlying cause, eye pain can result in bloodshot eyes, either constricted or dilated pupils, and squinting. Pain elsewhere in the body can cause dilated pupils.


Pain in mouths or teeth can lead to changed eating and/or drinking patterns. It can also cause animals to drop food or water while consuming it. Pain elsewhere in the body can cause them to eat and drink less generally.

Sometimes clues get overlooked

Obviously, a recent surgery, open wound or broken bone, would most likely be painful for animals, but there are many common conditions that often go unnoticed by animal owners and are consequently not treated by vets despite the pain they cause. The signs are often more likely to be overlooked because they’re not recognised as potential signs of pain, rather than going unnoticed altogether.  It is therefore important to check with your vet whether any condition your pet has, or for which it’s receiving treatment, has the potential to cause pain. Ask what the signs are, and also check what the options are for treating the pain.


Illnesses that can cause pain include cancer, kidney and bladder stones, cystitis (inflammation of the bladder), pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas), arthritis (inflammation of the joints), enteritis and gastritis (inflammation of the intestines and stomach respectively). Arthritis can occur in numerous places including the elbow and hip, and there are a variety of other conditions that can cause pain such as slipped discs and knee injuries.  Other painful conditions include ear infections, eye problems such as glaucoma and corneal ulcers, and broken teeth and periodontal disease.


Know what’s normal for your pet

Changes to most aspects of your pet’s health will be easier to detect when you have a good idea of what’s normal for them. This includes all aspects of physical and behavioural patterns including their energy level, general attitude, sleeping patterns, appetite, thirst, and gait. Knowing what’s normal makes it easier to tell what’s not, which is why it’s a good idea to know what your pet’s normal vital signs are, such as their pulse rate and temperature.


Never self-medicate

If you suspect that your pet is in pain, contact your vet. It is important that the underlying cause of the pain is determined and treated. Never give an animal medication unless instructed to by your vet.  Administering medication without seeking veterinary advice can cause poisoning and other injury.


There are a variety of pain reducing options vets may use in treating animals and occasionally there can be adverse reactions.  It is therefore important that you and your vet discuss the pros and cons of any medication particularly if your pet will be taking it on an ongoing basis. If your pet experiences an adverse reaction, discontinue use of the medication and contact your vet immediately.


The issue of pain management in animals is a topic of priority within the veterinary profession and pet owners play an important role in recognising the clues indicating pain or discomfort. Pain is very subjective and difficult to measure, and animals react differently to pain. Remember that subtle changes in behaviour may be the only clue that our pets are in pain, therefore don’t hesitate to check with your vet and ask questions if you notice a change.