Is My Dog or Cat in Pain?

Pain Management Information to Help Your Pet

by Ethan Morris, DVM

Many times owners will ask me—is my pet in pain? Does my dog or cat feel pain like we do? The answer is a resounding yes. Dogs and cats are very similar to us physiologically. How their muscles, bones, tendons, nerves, etc. respond to pain/stimuli is identical to how people’s respond. How our pets communicate pain to us is where we differ.

How do I know if my dog or cat is painful?

There are many indicators that our pets use to let us know they are in discomfort including the following:

  • When dogs and cats are painful they will often seem less alert or more quiet. They will be less engaging when they normally are very social and playful.
  • They will hide and avoid being with other animals or people in the house.
  • They may show ‘stiff’ movements or are less willing to move when called or greeted. For example, dogs and cats with sore backs or necks will appear less likely to want to move at all.
  • Dogs and cats in severe pain may position their bodies in abnormal postures. For example, dogs with severe abdominal pain will appear to be ‘praying’ with their front legs lowered with their back legs extended.
  • Dogs or cats with less severe pain may seem anxious or more alert. They may pace excessively and seem agitated.
  • Other signs of pain in dogs and cats include panting, vocalizing, shivering, shallow breathing, and pupils that appear larger than normal.
  • Dogs in particular may lose their appetite when they are painful.
  • When dogs and cats are lame (favoring a leg) after running, jumping, rough play, or trauma—this is an indicator that the leg is painful and they are unwilling to use the leg normally.

What is the next step once we recognize that our dog or cat is in pain?

I recommend that you contact your regular veterinarian if you believe your pet is painful. There are numerous causes of pain that may be a medical emergency.

What ailments can make your dog or cat painful?

  • Trauma is the leading cause of acute pain in our dogs and cats. The trauma sustained can be as severe as being struck by a car leading to fractures (if your pet is struck by a car it should be seen immediately by a veterinarian), or trauma from chasing a squirrel in the backyard.
  • Gastrointestinal problems can lead to abdominal pain. Ingestion of inappropriate items, liver disease, and pancreatitis can be agonizing,
  • Urinary problems can be painful in dogs and cats. Blockages due to stones in the kidneys, urethra, and ureters can be very uncomfortable.
  • Chronic arthritis is one of the most common types of pain we treat in veterinary medicine. As discussed earlier, our pet’s physiology is very similar to our own so when your dog or cat is diagnosed with arthritis their discomfort is similar to ours. Arthritis can be secondary to an old injury, such as an old fracture, or from a ligament tear, hip dysplasia, or degeneration due to age.

Should we treat our pet’s pain?

Yes, we should always make an effort to treat our pet’s pain. The research is conclusive that pain, especially if it is experienced over a long period of time, can actually be hazardous to a dog’s or cat’s health. The reason is that pain is a stressor and the body begins to release a set of stress-related hormones in response to that stress. These affect virtually every system in the body. They alter the rate of metabolism, cause neurological responses, and cause the heart, thymus glands, adrenal glands and the immune system to go into a high state of activity. If this situation continues long enough some organs may become dysfunctional. In addition, the tension that the state of pain-related stress induces can decrease the animal’s appetite, cause muscle fatigue and tissue breakdown, and also rob the dog or cat of essential healing sleep. The stress that the pain causes can prevent our pets from healing.

How do we treat our pet’s pain?

It is our goal to treat our pets appropriately for their specific diagnosed problem. With the known diagnosis, we can customize our pain management plan. Not all of the following pain medications may be beneficial for your pet, so please ask your veterinarian what is appropriate for your pet.

All pain medication should be prescribed by your veterinarian—do not use your own pain medication to treat your dog or cat. It is important to treat the underlying cause of pain to help your pet improve. The following is a list of common practices used in veterinary medicine for treating pain:

  • Narcotics are widely used in veterinary medicine for acute and chronic pain. Such drugs as fentanyl, hydromorphone, morphine, and buprenorphine are commonly used in veterinary hospitals for treatment of pain associated with trauma, surgery, post-op surgical pain management, and chronic diseases.
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) are very commonly prescribed by veterinarians for treatment of pain in dogs and cats. There are a greater number of NSAIDs available for dogs than for cats. Cats metabolize some NSAIDs drugs more slowly than dogs, potentially increasing the risk of adverse drug reactions. Cats can be difficult to medicate and often resist administration of oral medication and have a limited number of options when it comes to veterinary approved pain medications.
  • Gabapentin or Neurontin is commonly used in dogs for acute and chronic pain.
  • Physical therapy can be used in pets for chronic injuries to strengthen and decrease pain from ligament and tendon injuries, back and neck pain, and old fractures from severe trauma. Veterinary physical therapists use the same modalities for our pets as are used for people including heat and cold, stretching, repeated exercises, ultrasound, laser, and water therapy.
  • Acupuncture is widely used in veterinary medicine. It stimulates the release of the body’s own pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory substances. Acupuncture also causes relaxation of muscles at the site of needle insertion creating both a local and generalized pain-relieving effect. In addition, acupuncture improves tissue blood flow, oxygenation, and removal of metabolic wastes and toxins.

If your pet seems to be in pain—it is always best to see your veterinarian and address the pain and its cause promptly.

Ethan Morris, DVM

Dr. Morris is the director of the Surgery Division of the Veterinary Referral Center of Northern Virginia in Manassas and the owner of the practice. While Dr. Morris attended Tulane University he worked at the Audubon Zoo which reinforced his enthusiasm for a career in veterinary medicine. He received a Bachelor of Arts in Classical History and a minor in Biology from Tulane. Dr. Morris graduated from Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine where he was exposed to many facets of veterinary medicine.

He completed a one-year Small Animal Surgery/Medicine/Emergency Internship at the Darien Animal Hospital in Darien Connecticut and a three-year surgical residency at the University of Minnesota Veterinary Teaching Hospital. During his time at the University of Minnesota Dr. Morris was trained in orthopedic, neurological, and soft tissue surgeries.  He has special interests in cranial cruciate injuries, thoracic surgery, and juvenile hip dysplasia.  Dr. Morris can be reached at 703.361.0710, ext. 3 or

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