Chronic Pain In Pets Part 1: Causes, Symptoms, And Prevention

hand scratching the chin of a brown tabby cat

Pets can develop chronic pain for a variety of reasons, but because they cannot verbally tell us when they’re hurting, overcoming the communication barrier can quickly become challenging for pet owners who want to alleviate any and all pain in their four-legged friends.

Dr. Daniel Eckman, a staff veterinarian at the Texas A&M School of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences’ Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital, discusses some of the most common causes and symptoms of chronic pain in pets.

Firstly, it is important to distinguish chronic pain from acute pain.

“Acute pain, also known as adaptive pain, serves a purpose,” Eckman said. “It tells us not to use or do something in the short-term. Acute pain usually goes away within minutes to days, weeks, or months.”

On the other hand, chronic pain is generally believed to last three months or longer and stops acting in direct response to an illness or injury.

“Chronic pain serves no purpose and creates changes within the body and nervous system that can lead to further pain states or psychological changes,” Eckman said.

A variety of medical conditions can lead to the development of chronic pain in pets.

“The most common cause of pain in pets is osteoarthritis, or degenerative joint disease,” Eckman said. “Other causes of chronic pain could include neurologic disease or injury, dental disease, cancer pain, and untreated or improperly treated acute pain.”

Because chronic pain can manifest differently in individual pets, there are a number of symptoms and behavioral changes that pet owners should watch out for.

“Signs of chronic pain might include lameness or limping, a decrease in activity levels, having trouble standing, a reluctance or inability to jump up on objects, a decreased appetite, overgrooming of an area, or being withdrawn from the family or other pets,” Eckman said.

As a pet owner, it is important to act quickly if you notice a pet showing symptoms of pain and seek treatment from a veterinarian. Untreated pain can worsen and lead to additional health complications.

“Chronic pain is usually prevented by treating the underlying disease state that causes acute pain,” Eckman said. “If pain is not recognized early enough, such as with a chronic arthritic dog, this can also lead to chronic pain that could have been prevented by treating it earlier.”

In the next part of this series on chronic pain, Eckman will discuss some of the common treatment methods that veterinarians and owners can employ to keep the symptoms of chronic pain at bay.

Pet Talk is a service of the School of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University. Stories can be viewed on the web at Suggestions for future topics may be directed to

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