Detecting the Subtle Signs of Pain

The first step in caring for a sick or injured animal is being able to recognize the signs of pain that indicate something is wrong. Acute pain tends to be easier to identify, but chronic pain can have a variety of less-noticeable symptoms.

To help pet owners recognize these symptoms, Dr. Daniel Eckman, a veterinarian at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, discusses the most common indicators of pain in cats and dogs.Cat licking its paw

“Signs of chronic pain in cats may include a reluctance to jump or a change in jumping, a change in overall mobility, a change in sleeping locations or positions, and the inability to get comfortable when laying down,” Eckman said.

Chronic pain may cause cats to have changes in appetite or thirst and to use the litter box less often, especially if it has a high rim to climb over. Odd grooming behavior, such as excessive licking, biting and scratching at one spot, or lack of grooming, can also indicate that a cat is in pain.

Cat owners may notice more subtle behavioral changes, as well, such as odd facial expressions, increased vocalization, or a reluctance to be petted.

Similarly, dogs also tend to be more withdrawn while in pain and may even show aggression when approached or touched.

“Signs of chronic pain in dogs may include limping, difficulty getting up or down from a lying position, changes in jumping ability, restlessness, and difficulty walking on a slippery floor or going up and down stairs,” Eckman said.

Like cats, dogs may also exhibit odd grooming behaviors or facial expressions, and may even pant or tremble when in pain.

“Determining the cause of pain may be difficult, so it is best to team with your veterinarian to identify the sources of pain and the best ways of treating it,” Eckman said.

Dogs and cats often have the natural instinct to hide signs of pain, as this would keep them alive in the wild, so it is very important that pet owners know the subtle signs of pain and take pets to a veterinarian if they exhibit any signs.

Eckman recommends visiting the International Veterinary Academy of Pain Management blog ( for more information on recognizing signs of pain in cats, dogs, large animals, and exotic pets.

Our pets may not be able to verbally communicate with us, but they do have their own ways of telling us when they need help. As pet owners, it is our job to recognize those behavioral changes and do what we can to keep our animals free from pain.

Pet Talk is a service of the College 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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