Is my pet in pain?

I recently saw a case of a 9-year-old mixed-breed dog “Radar”, who was brought in to me for “just a check-up” and to update the vaccinations. A foul odor emanated from the dog and it didn’t take long to locate the source. The teeth of this poor creature were in terrible shape. A combination of genetics, and possibly diet, chewing on the wrong things, an owner that wasn’t aware dogs could have dental problems had all led up to severe dental disease. I asked the owner if the dog was in pain with such an infected mouth. Surely the loose and rotting teeth must be causing a problem. The owner’s reply was “I don’t think so, he doesn’t cry”.

Nobody wants to see their pet suffering and in pain. However, sometimes it can be very difficult to know for sure whether or not your pet is in pain. Sometimes it’s quite obvious – a noticeable limp, large cut, or observed trauma, such as being struck by a car. But other times your pet’s signs of pain can be far more subtle. It’s at these times that people often need guidance on what to look for to know if their pet is in pain.

It is important to know your pet’s normal behavior to be able to read their body language. As with many other aspects of caring for your pet, these signs will be more obvious to you (even when they are subtle) if you have a good idea of your pet’s “normal.” This includes his normal attitude, energy level, gait, appetite, thirst, sleep patterns, and other physical and behavioral patterns. After all, if you don’t know what’s “normal” it’s much more difficult to recognize what’s not.

*Important note: When evaluating your pet for potential pain, please take great care to not get yourself (or anyone helping you) bitten. Even if your pet would never normally bite anyone, the mere fact that you’re evaluating your pet for pain indicates that this may not be a normal time.

The following list serves as a guideline only. Not all pets will show all these signs when experiencing pain. Likewise, just because a pet exhibits one of these signs it doesn’t necessarily mean they are in pain.

  • Biting: Pets in pain are more likely to bite. This is true even with their owners and other people they know. This is particularly true when a person touches or moves the painful area.
  • Breathing Changes: Pets experiencing pain may have a faster and more shallow breathing pattern than normal. They may also pant. You may even notice a change in the movement of the abdominal muscles and/or those of the chest. Both sets of muscles are involved in the breathing process.
  • Heart and Pulse Changes: Pets in pain will often have an increased heart/pulse rate. The rate often noticeably speeds up when the painful area is touched or moved. Take a pet first aid course, or ask your veterinarian or one of the clinic technicians to show you how to check and measure your pet’s heart and/or pulse rate.
  • Posture Changes: Pets who are in pain may assume a very rigid, “sawhorse-type” stance, while others may assume the “prayer position” with their front legs on the ground, their butt up in the air, and a stretch throughout their abdomen. It looks like a “play bow”, but it is anything but playful. Some pets in pain will lie around more, while others will be more “antsy” and have difficulty laying down and getting comfortable. It all depends on the type, location, and severity of the pain. These postural changes can be even more subtle, taking the shape of an arched or sunken back, or even a dropped or tucked tail in a pet who normally has a perky tail. Some pets will take to sleeping in areas of the house or yard that are not typical for them.
  • Eye Changes: The eyes can be great indicators of pain in pets. They change both for eye pain itself and for pain elsewhere in the body. Often pain elsewhere in the body will result in larger (dilated) pupils, while pain in the eye(s) can result in either larger or smaller (constricted) pupils – depending on the underlying injury or disease process, and whether one or both eyes are affected. Pained pets will also frequently squint. If their eyes are painful, the affected eye(s) may also appear bloodshot.
  • Food and Water Changes: Pets in pain often eat and drink less than normal. When they do eat and drink, if the cause of their pain is their teeth or some other part of the mouth, they may drop food and or water from their mouth.
  • Energy Level Changes: Most pets in pain will have a general decrease in their activity level. This often shows as a pet who sleeps more. It may also manifest as a pet who simply runs and/or jumps less than normal.

What to do if you think your pet is in pain: Call our Animal hospital at 604-858-4415.

If your pet has been prescribed medication to counter the pain please make sure you are administering it according to directions. Avoid the temptation to give human-labelled medications unless instructed by your veterinarian. Some human medications can be very toxic to pets.

Radar was eventually brought in for his much-needed dental work. Seventeen teeth were extracted (some of which literally fell out while being examined and radiographed. His mouth was cleansed: his remaining teeth were cleaned, freed of tartar, polished and gums flushed with an antibacterial rinse. His extraction sites were sutured closed and he was discharged later that day with a prescription for infection and pain. When I rechecked “Radar’s” mouth a week later his owner was “over the moon” with joy. Not only had his bad breath cleared up but in many ways he seemed like a puppy again: he had energy, he was fetching the ball, and ate all his food with reckless abandon. All his body language before his dental work was pointing to a painful mouth. Now his life was pain-free and back to normal.