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How to tell if your pet is in pain

Dog in pain on couch

Dogs and cats can’t just come out and tell you when something’s wrong. Instead, you have to decode their cries and watch their body language. 

Leslie Goldman

By Leslie Goldman

Pain is the body’s way of telling us something isn’t right. It can come from a hot stove burning your arm or a backache that signals a bulging disk. As humans, we have the ability to tell a doctor when we feel discomfort. But our pets aren’t so lucky.

Like us, dogs and cats can develop a range of potentially painful health issues: arthritis, infected teeth, tumors and more. But before you can begin treatment, you have to recognize the problem. Here’s what to look for.

A change in appetite

If your pet loses interest in food, it’s a major sign that something is wrong, says Jerry Klein, DVM. He’s the chief veterinary officer for the American Kennel Club (AKC). That’s why “Is your pet eating?” is always one of the first questions he asks owners who suspect their pet is in pain.

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Hunched posture

Think about how you act when your belly hurts. You double over and try not to move too much. An animal will do the same thing. “If a dog or cat is hunched up and tense in their belly area, they could have abdominal pain or back pain,” Dr. Klein says.

Pain coming from the stomach is often accompanied by vomiting or diarrhea. But not always, at least not at first. Possible causes include:

  • A foreign body in the stomach (i.e., they swallowed something bad)
  • Intervertebral disk disease (dachshunds are prone to this spinal condition)
  • Pancreatitis (another term for pancreas inflammation)

Panting

“Panting is one of the ways dogs can express that they’re uncomfortable,” says Erica Esser, DVM, a veterinarian based in Chicago. As for cats: “If they are open-mouth breathing, that’s an urgent health concern,” she says.

Related reading: 6 ways to get your dog or cat to take medication

Limping

No one wants to walk on a hurt leg or foot, and animals are no different. If a dog or cat begins suddenly limping, they may have an acute injury.

According to the AKC, if something is stuck in an animal’s paw, their limping will be accompanied by constant paw licking. This could be caused by a thorn, nail or piece of glass.

“We also occasionally see fractures, maybe from a paw that got stuck in a door, or in a little dog who jumped off the bed funny,” says Dr. Esser.

She adds that cranial cruciate ligament tears can also cause limping. This is the canine equivalent of an anterior cruciate (or ACL) tear in humans. Larger breeds, such as Labradors, are especially vulnerable.

But not all limps come on suddenly. Some are gradual. In that case, the pain may come from a chronic or degenerative condition. Examples include an abnormal growth of cells called dysplasia, or osteoarthritis (also known as degenerative joint disease), which is caused by the deterioration of cartilage.

One in 5 dogs suffer from canine arthritis, according to the AKC. And nearly all cats older than age 10 have joint pain, according to the North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine.

Making noise when touched

Fido may yelp if you touch a sensitive area. Fluffy may cry or meow. These are usually signs that something is wrong.

(The benefits of pet ownership go both ways. Here are 4 ways a dog can improve your health.)

Another thing to look for in cats is crying or meowing while using the litter box. This could be a sign of a painful urinary tract infection or obstruction, says Dr. Esser.

Overall changes in normal behavior

If your hyperactive French bulldog is suddenly sullen and withdrawn, or your energetic border collie won’t even glance at a tennis ball, it may be a clue that something is wrong. Be on the lookout for abrupt shifts in behavior. These can include changes in sleep patterns, activity level or the way your dog or cat responds to being petted.

How do you help a pet that’s in pain?

If you suspect your cat or dog is hurting, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian. Treatment will vary based on the cause of the pain, but some of the most common options include:

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)

You may be familiar with common NSAIDs such as aspirin (Bayer®), ibuprofen (Advil®) and naproxen (Aleve®). People rely on these for headaches, toothaches, muscle pain and more.

Similarly, there are NSAIDs specifically for dogs and cats. They can provide quick pain relief, and they’re generally safe when prescribed by a vet for short-term use. But long-term NSAID use in dogs (for cancer pain or arthritis, for instance) can cause kidney, liver or digestive issues.

The Food and Drug Administration has not approved NSAIDs for long-term use in cats. If your vet prescribes an NSAID for a longer duration, they will monitor your pet for any problems.

An important note here: Pet NSAIDs are different from the ones people take. Human pain medications can be toxic or even deadly for pets. Aspirin and other pain meds in your medicine cabinet should never be given to your pet unless specifically directed by the veterinarian. Dr. Klein emphasizes that “the outcomes are bad — and sometimes deadly.”

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Nerve pain medication

Dogs and cats with back pain may be prescribed gabapentin for relief. It can have a lightly sedating effect, so your vet may have you give it to your pet at night before bed.

Gabapentin may be combined with an NSAID for an added level of pain management, says Dr. Esser. Or it may be used alone on cats with underlying kidney or liver conditions that rule out short-term NSAID use.

Diet and weight loss

More than half of dogs and cats are overweight or obese, according to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention. And those extra pounds can be a problem. They can contribute to joint pain and make your pet more likely to tear a ligament or develop a disk disease, says Dr. Esser.

For weight loss, veterinarians will often recommend lower-calorie, commercially prepared dog food. They may also recommend prescription pet food, which is designed to control hunger and boost metabolism.

Pulsed electromagnetic field therapy (PEMF)

PEMF is a treatment that relies on electromagnetic waves. According to a 2018 review in Research in Veterinary Science, veterinarians are increasingly using it to reduce pain and inflammation from osteoarthritis and post-operative recoveries. They also use it to increase blood flow and speed up bone and wound healing.

Your vet may perform PEMF in the veterinarian’s office or recommend an at-home system.

Cannabidiol (CBD)

This nonpsychoactive compound is found in cannabis. It may help ease pain, says Dr. Klein. And no, it won’t get your pet stoned.

One problem with CBD is that it’s hard to make definitive claims about dosage. There are hundreds of pet CBD products on the market, but because they’re unregulated, it’s difficult to know if the CBD levels are consistent with what’s on the label, Dr. Klein says.

Still, he’s optimistic that CBD oil may prove useful, particularly “if used in conjunction with other medications for chronic pain.”

Legal issues prohibit vets in many states from prescribing any cannabis products for animals, but laws are changing. Recently, veterinarians licensed in Nevada gained the legal right to administer CBD products to animals, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.

“The more we learn about CBD, the more it may have a role in the future of pain management,” Dr. Klein says.

Nobody knows your pet like you do. If she or he is acting unusual, it’s usually a sign that something is wrong. The best way to know for sure is to make an appointment with your vet. And if you print out your Optum Perks discount card before you go, you’ll be ready to swing by the pharmacy on the way home. You may get a discount just by showing it to the pharmacist at checkout.

 

Additional sources:
One in 5 dogs suffer from arthritis: American Kennel Club (2021). “How to Manage the Symptoms of Canine Arthritis
Nearly all older cats have joint pain: painfreecats.org
Pulsed electromagnetic field therapy for pet pain: Research in Veterinary Science (2018). “Veterinary applications of pulsed electromagnetic field therapy
PEMF may heal wounds in elderly humans: Case Reports in Dermatological Medicine (2015). “Article Effectiveness of an Innovative Pulsed Electromagnetic Fields Stimulation in Healing of Untreatable Skin Ulcers in the Frail Elderly: Two Case Reports
PEMF increases blood flow in the brains of rats: Stroke (2018). “Pulsed Electromagnetic Field (PEMF) Increases Microvascular Flow and Tissue Oxygenation in the Normal Rat Brain
Nevada veterinarians can now treat animals with tetrahydrocannabinol: Journal of the American Veterinary Association (2021). “Nevada veterinarians can treat patients with certain cannabis products”
More than half of pets are overweight or obese: Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (2019). “U.S. Pet Obesity Rates Plateau and Nutritional Confusion Grows