How Do I Know if My Cat or Dog is Experiencing Pain?

Animals are amazing at hiding what ails them. This is an instinctual drive that they have mastered in order to survive in the wild. We all know that weak and ill animals are preyed upon. Furthermore, our cats and dogs really want to “show up” for us. Given their deep connection with us, they want to be present, go for that run with you, go play ball with you… I often times see this intense desire to please in dogs. Especially in breeds like Labrador Retrievers, Border Collies, Golden Retrievers just to name a few. Because animals are wired not to reveal their pain (when possible) coupled with the fact they don’t want to disappoint us, figuring out when they are painful can be quite a challenge.  Here are some tips that can be helpful:

Yelping, Snapping and Growling and Hissing

This would be the most obvious sign that your animal is in pain. An area is touched and they repeatedly yelp, snap, growl or hiss in response to repeat stimuli to that area. The key is that the response is repeatable. This is the most reliable indicator of pain. Anything short of this is a bit of a guessing game.

Diagnosis with a Painful Condition

There are some disease processes that we know are painful no matter how the cat or dog is responding. These include: surgical procedures, inability to empty bladder (urinary obstruction), fractured bone, bone cancer, abscesses/cellulitis, severe dental disease, infection of abdominal cavity (peritonitis) or glaucoma. In addition, many animals experiencing fluid accumulation in the abdomen (ascites), pancreatitis or that have a tumor stretching the liver capsule are quite painful, as well.   On one end of the spectrum, animals with any of these conditions may be very lethargic and just sleep all day. On the other end of the spectrum, are the ones that want to play and jump around as if their recently repaired fracture doesn’t hurt. Cats and dogs with any of these conditions really should be on some sort of analgesic therapy regardless of how comfortable they act.

Panting and Increased Heart Rate

If you notice increased panting (especially in cats — panting is never normal for a cat, even after strenuous exercise!) and increased heart rate, at rest, your animal needs a thorough evaluation by a veterinarian, as soon as possible. This could be a sign of pain. However, it also could be a sign of shock, respiratory disease or some other very serious ailment. A good physical exam and stabilization, if necessary, are in order. Some initial diagnostics such as bloodwork or radiographs (x-rays) may be warranted as well to get started.


This is a very vague sign. It could mean pain but it also could be due to generalized discomfort from an inability to breathe, nausea, dysphoria from the administration of drugs like Tramadol or Fentanyl just to name a few. This sign has to be coupled with whatever else is going on in the animal’s life. Does s/he have storm phobia and there is an impending storm coming? Did s/he just come home from the hospital after major surgery with a Fentanyl Patch? Sure, they may be painful from the surgery or they may be experiencing dysphoria from the pain patch. I’ve seen more animals experience restlessness due to something other than pain than actually being painful. Again, the place to start out is a good thorough evaluation by a veterinarian.

As you can see, it can be very difficult to determine if your cat or dog is painful. Clinical signs that we commonly associate to being painful — like restlessness and panting — are often not good indicators as those behaviors can be the the result of so many other issues. The main two reliable indicators of pain are repeated reaction (yelping, snapping, growling or hissing) to stimuli to one an area of the body and history of known painful condition such as surgery, fractured bone, etc. When in doubt, a good evaluation by a veterinarian is in order. May your cat or dog remain happy and healthy!






Dr. Alicia Harris