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4 Subtle Signs Your Pet is in Pain

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Assessing pain in pets can be challenging, even for experienced veterinary professionals. While pets cannot grade their pain on a scale of 1-10, they can communicate discomfort in other ways.  

If you notice your pet displaying any of these four subtle signs of pain, don’t overlook them! 

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1. Decreased Appetite 

Pets often eat less when they are in pain. A “chow hound” may suddenly become a picky eater and accept only high value foods. A counter-surfing cat looking for a treat may suddenly become less mischievous.  

  • Early evaluation and intervention are key to prevent your pet from developing dehydration and other complications.  
  • Any pet with a decreased appetite for more than 24-28 hours should be evaluated by a veterinarian. 
  • Emergency care is recommended for pets who have refused to eat anything for 24 hours or longer. 

Note: It is NOT recommend to syringe water or force feed your pet at home due to the risk of aspiration and possible development of pneumonia.  

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2. Slowing Down 

Pets in pain may seem tired, reluctant to walk, use stairs, or jump on or off furniture. Older pets may appear to be “slowing down”.  

  • A pain management assessment by your family veterinarian is recommended for any pet exhibiting a gradual decline in activity.  
  • Emergency veterinary care is warranted for pets who develop more sudden changes in activity level or mobility.  
  • Advances in veterinary medicine mean there are more options for pain management including prescription medications, supplements, massage, and acupuncture. 

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3. Behavior Changes 

Pets experiencing pain often stop acting like themselves. Cats may become withdrawn or hide for extended periods. A dog that normally cuddles on the couch may choose to sleep in its kennel. Some pets may shake or tremble. 

  • Evaluation by a veterinarian is recommended for any pet exhibiting behavior changes. 
  • Emergency evaluation is recommended for pets that are so painful that they vocalize or become aggressive when handled.  
  • Owners should use caution when handling extremely painful pets to help prevent scratches and bites.  

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4. Overgrooming 

Both cats and dogs may excessively lick or chew a painful area.  

  • Pets that are grooming too much should be evaluated on an urgent basis by a veterinarian to identify and treat the underlying problem. 
  • Early intervention can prevent development of complications secondary to compulsive licking and chewing. These can include self-induced skin trauma, skin infections, and hair loss.  
  • You may also choose to contact your veterinarian to determine if an Elizabethan collar (aka E-collar or cone) might be appropriate for your pet to help prevent self-trauma while you wait for a veterinary appointment.  
  • Emergency care may be warranted in cases in which a pet is exhibiting signs of pain in addition to overgrooming.  

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Pets are very stoic and often mask pain. So, if you notice any of these subtle signs, contact your family veterinarian or local animal emergency hospital. If you aren’t certain your pet’s pain is an emergency, you can call and talk to a triage technician to determine next steps. In the event you are waiting for an appointment with your family veterinarian, monitor your pet closely and journal noticeable signs and behaviors. Seek immediate veterinary care if the situation worsens and your pet begins to display any signs of a pet emergency. 

 Written by Betsy Chisler, DVM. 

More Reading: 

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