Ouch! Recognizing and Treating Pain in Dogs and Cats - Bonnie and Clyde Pet Goods

Ouch! Recognizing and Treating Pain in Dogs and Cats

Dog and cat lying side by side

We often only think of pain in our pets when they are injured or very old. Yet pain management is becoming a widely discussed and hot-button topic as more and more research shows that pets experience pain just as much as people. The current state of pain treatment in pets is uneven at best, and in some cases, still completely disregarded by veterinarians [3]. It is also hard to recognize pain in our pets when they can’t easily let us know what hurts! Here are some ways to recognize pain in your own dog or cat, treatments that might help, and natural alternatives that can help prevent pain before it starts.

What is Pain

Tabby cat lying

Pain is a hard experience to define as almost every living thing will perceive it differently. Acute pain is the sudden distressing feeling that makes you want to move away from an object such as stubbing a toe, touching a hot burner, or cutting your arm on a branch. Chronic pain can be harder to define, and may include aches, pains, that general “off” feeling and more. Both types of pain may also be a problem on their own or a symptom of a larger issue.

Pain is hard to determine when it can’t be explained to you, as is the case with dogs and cats. Pain scores are often variable as it relies on observers (you or the veterinarian) determining the level of pain in your dog or cat. The amount of pain seen may also be subjective if multiple people are observing it, each with their own analysis of the level of pain present [4].

Causes of Pain in Pets

Chained dog lying on ground

Pain can be a symptom of many illnesses, diseases, and problems. Your dog or cat may experience acute pain if they are in an accident, get injured during play, or have procedures done such as spaying and neutering or more advanced surgeries. Your pets may also experience chronic pain as part of a disease process such as arthritis, cancer, and metabolic illness.

Recognizing Pain in Dogs

Dog wearing a cone

While your dog may not be able to directly tell you about being in pain, there are several signs present that can indicate your dog may not be feeling his or her best. These include seven major signs as written by BarkPost: Gait, Energy, Appetite, Eyes, Demeanor, Breath and Posture [1].

Changes in gait can include limping, refusal to walk, jerking or strange movements or painful cries when attempting to move. Energy and appetite changes include sleeping or laying down more often, losing interest in usually fun activities, and complete refusal or decrease in eating and drinking. Demeanor is related, and may show up as sudden aggression or fear in a normally calm dog. The eyes and breath may change with an increase in rapid breathing or panting, squinted or closed eyes, or changes to the pupil in response to pain. Posture can also change, with a dog hunching up or holding a limb close to the body to minimize its movement and pain in the area.

Recognizing Pain in Cats

Weary looking cat lying on rug

Cats are even better than dogs at hiding pain, and some cats may hide their pain so well that the owner doesn’t even realize they are ill until they are VERY ill! Most owners find it hard to assess pain in cats, and the assessment may be inaccurate if relying only on overt signs [7]. Luckily, as with dogs, there are some signs that may indicate your cat is in pain or not feeling well. These include hiding, increased aggression, behavioral changes, breathing and heart rate changes, eye changes, appetite changes and constipation [5].

Behavioral changes such as hiding, increased aggression or stopping normally enjoyed activities can indicate that something is off. You may also notice changes such as a rapid heart rate or panting, squinted eyes, and changes in pupil size. Cats may also stop eating or drinking, or may have bowel issues such as constipation, especially if the pain is preventing them from climbing into a litter box or maintaining a normal posture for going potty. Cats in acute pain may also have an increase in vocalization with loud yowling and cries.

Treating Pain

Cat with one eye closed

Pain management for pets has come a long way, and more and more veterinarians are using pain treatment to help with acute problems, chronic pain, post-surgical pain and palliative care. The American College of Veterinary Anesthesiologists (ACVA) has begun to set standards on pain management and recognition [3]. The ACVA has also acknowledged that pain management depends greatly on the age, breed, species and circumstances regarding the pain and should be treated accordingly.

So what can you do at home to help treat pain in your dog and cat? There are three major treatment modalities: traditional medications, natural therapies, and supplementation with natural products or diet changes.

Traditional Medications

Prescription pills

Traditional medications are the most used treatment for both chronic and acute pain. More and more vets are prescribing pain medications for use after surgery, and to help with long-term pain from arthritis or illness.

For dogs, treatment involves the use of NSAIDS and other medications. NSAIDS, or Non-steroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs, help decrease pain and inflammation and are generally tolerated for long-term use. They are most often used during chronic pain or post-surgical pain. Other medications used include amantadine, also used in humans for Parkinson’s, gabapentin to block nerve pain, and tramadol, an opioid pain reliever [2].

For cats, NSAIDS are recommended for short-term use only due to the increased sensitivity of the liver and kidneys. Other medications include corticosteroids such as prednisolone, gabapentin, and amitriptyline commonly used for depression in humans [6].

Local anesthesia can also be used for both dogs and cats to block pain to specific areas such as an injured limb or surgical site [7].

One problem with traditional medications is that they can cause serious side effects if used incorrectly or for long-term use. Side effects can include changes in behavior and eating habits and may also cause vomiting or diarrhea. Long-term effects can include kidney or liver damage.

Some human over the counter medications can also be harmful or even deadly to pets, such as aspirin given to cats, or NSAIDs given to pets in the wrong dosage. While these can sometimes be given short-term or in emergency situations, it is always best to contact your veterinarian prior to using any pain medication not approved for pets to ensure that it won’t cause harm.

Natural Therapies

Woman holding cat on her knees

Natural and alternative therapies are quickly growing in popularity for pain treatment in humans and animals alike. This includes therapies such as massage and acupuncture [7]. These therapies are often used in conjunction with pain medications or supplementation, or may be used on their own for a medication-free approach to pain treatment. In most cases, natural therapies are used for chronic pain from illness or long-term injury.

Acupuncture involves the use of tiny needles to target key points along the body. It can help the body to relax as well as release chemical endorphins to help relieve pain. Massage therapy involves the manipulation of the muscles and connective tissue through various techniques to help manually relax the muscles, relieve tension and promote healing.

Food and Supplements

Fruits and vegetables in wicker bowl

Diet changes and supplementation are also growing in popularity as a way to naturally relieve and prevent pain. Diet changes involve switching to diets to treat long-term conditions, relieve and prevent pain, or avoid ingredients that may cause sensitivities and chronic pain. Supplementation involves adding extra nutrients to help reduce pain and inflammation and promote healing.

Popular diet changes include switching to prescription diets that treat specific chronic conditions such as chronic bladder infections, diabetes, and weight gain, or switching to age or breed specific diets such as a senior diet. These diets often have extra additives such as glucosamine or antioxidants which can relieve chronic pain and inflammation without serious side effects.

The most well-known supplements include glucosamine and chondroitin [2] for use in treating arthritis pain, but can also include fish oils, vitamin E, and other natural additives to help reduce oxidative stress in the cells, decrease inflammation and prevent pain. These supplements have the added bonus of helping maintain health throughout the entire body as well as relatively few, if any, side effects.

If you’d like to learn more about specific supplements for treating chronic pain, check out Joint Supplements for Dogs - Beyond Glucosamine.

Recognizing pain in your dog or cat can be difficult, but treating it doesn’t have to be. Once you’ve recognized that your pet may not be feeling his or her best, there are many options available to help make them more comfortable. Be sure to always check with your veterinarian prior to starting a pain management plan to make sure the plan for your pet is the best choice and get started on helping your pet feel better today!


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[1] Costello, Zoe. “7 Signs Your Dog is in Pain and Trying to Hide it.” BarkPost, 23 Oct 2015. Web. 01 Aug. 2016. http://barkpost.com/dog-pain-signs/

[2] “Dog Pain Medications: Aspirin (and Other NSAIDS), Ibuprofen, and More.” WebMD. Web. 01 Aug. 2016. http://pets.webmd.com/dogs/guide/dog-pain-medications

[3] Hellyer, Peter DVM MS DACVA. “Treatment of Pain in Dogs and Cats.” JAVMA, 15 July 2002. Web. 01 Aug. 2016. http://avmajournals.avma.org/doi/abs/10.2460/javma.2002.221.212

[4] Holton, LL. “Comparison of Three Methods Used for Assessment of Pain in Dogs.” JAVMA, 1998, 212(1):61-65. Web. 01 Aug. 2016. http://europepmc.org/abstract/med/9426779

[5] Nicholas, Jason BVetMed. “How Can I Tell if My Cat is in Pain?” PreventiveVet, 5 June 2014. Web. 01 Aug. 2016. http://www.preventivevet.com/cats/how-can-i-tell-if-my-cat-is-in-pain

[6] “Safe Pain Meds for Cats.” WebMD. Web. 01 Aug. 2016. http://pets.webmd.com/cats/guide/safe-cat-pain-medications

[7] Wright, Bonnie DVM DACVA. “Clinical Pain Management Techniques for Cats.” College Vet Med, Colorado, 11 May 2006. Web. 01 Aug. 2016. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1096286702800445