Pain Assessment in Dogs and Cats


We all recognize pain when we feel it, but pain can be difficult to define because it is complex and subjective.  Sometimes pain is sharp, and at other times it is a dull ache.  For this reason, and because animals are experts at hiding their pain, pain can be difficult to recognize in our pets.

Pain Assessment in Pets Can be Challenging

sleeping dog

How will pets let us know they are painful?

The most consistent sign of pain during an exam is called the withdrawal reflex.  When a painful area is palpated, the dog will pull it away or protect the area by tensing the muscles.   This reflex does not involve the brain, but is a spinal cord reflex.

Anytime a pet is lame, it is usually due to pain.

Some dogs will be less interested in activities that they enjoy.  This might mean that they slow down on their walks or go for shorter walks.  This might mean that they stop playing altogether.

Some dogs will become restless when they are painful.  Most owners notice this at nighttime because they are unable to sleep through the night.

Most of the time cats will withdraw from people and may hide.

Dogs may have difficulty going up stairs or getting into the car.  Cats may have difficulty jumping or climbing.

Some dogs will pant when they are uncomfortable.

Some dogs will lick at a painful joint, sometimes to the point of causing a skin lesion.  Cats may stop grooming, so the coat becomes dirty or matted.


Pain assessment is pets is challenging because other things can cause similar signs

A dog may be panting because he is hot or nervous.

A dog may withdraw his foot because he does not like having his nails trimmed, or his feet may be ticklish.

We have to look at all the signs and take in the whole picture.

Sometimes, especially when signs of pain may be subtle, we may need to see how your pet responds to pain medication.




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