You might think you can tell that your pet is in pain, but don't be so sure. Most veterinarians have seen a dog with a pelvis shattered or even spinal fractures get up and walk when their owners enter the room, despite X-rays that say they should be screaming. Unlike humans, pets can not conceptualize or verbalize painful sensations to us unless they are excruciatingly intense to the point that they just can't cover them up any more. And yes a dog or cat with a broken bone might cry like a human, but in the majority of cases , animals disguise pain and adapt to it being a new normal part of life and might not show any indications people expect from them--no crying, no whining, no whimpering, and no nudging to take them to the vet.
Hiding pain is a known survival strategy in many animals because weak debilitated animals are vulnerable to predators, or even members of their own pack, so animals instinctively disguise painful sensations until they can't cope with them any more. Birds are especially famous for this, but to a lesser degree so are cats and dogs.
How is a thoughtful owner to recognize pain and discomfort in their pet? --So often as soon as you walk in the room they pretend to be just fine. It can take years of experience for veterinarians to learn what to watch for because pain is so subjective, and we can't ask our patients to complete pain scores. Below, we will list some common signs to look for that could indicate that your doggie might be uncomfortable that we hope you will find helpful.
Panting is one of the most common sings of chronic low-medium grade pain in pets with joint disease. Here we don't mean panting after exercising to cool themselves or due to respiratory problems, but rather panting at rest when they haven't exerted themselves, are not hot and aren't stressed.
Sleeping more Sometimes what we attribute to aging and slowing down isn't --they are just coping with discomfort and getting away from it by sleeping more, being the stoic creatures that they are.
Irritability. Grumpy. A dog uncharacteristically growling at children they used to play with is a strong sign. We had seen older dogs presented for euthanasia due to "aggression" in whom X-rays revealed severe joint and back pain the dog coped with by snapping and growling at children. In some instances pain medication and awareness that the dog was guarding his back from pain saved the pet from needless euthanasia parents tended to attribute to behavioral issues. They might be grumpy because they hurt.
Circling repeatedly to lie down
Slow to rise
Difficulty going up stairs, or jumping into a car
Not wanting to go on walks
Unusual position. Praying posture Dogs in severe abdominal pain can assume a yoga like pose with their heads on the floor and their butts stretched up in the air which can be mistaken for a funny dog trick.
Straining to urinate or defecate
Loss of appetite
Unexplained accidents in the house
Odor in the mouth, eating more on one side than another. If you are turning away when your pet wants to give you a kiss because their breath is stinky, they might need to have their mouth examined. We often don't realize how much pain our pets experience from diseased teeth--not until we fix them. Diseased teeth are often infected which leads to an odor, as does any infected tissue. Once they are pain free, we realize in retrospect they were in pain because they start acting happier.
Now that we know what to look for to recognize pain-- we can take steps to alleviate it!