We wish our pets could tell us everything over lunch — all the good stuff, like how much they love us, but especially the bad stuff, like all about their chronically sore paw, or tooth or tummy ache.
Unfortunately, it’s up to all the pet parents out there to pick up on the signs. September is Animal Pain Awareness Month, so we asked the experts at Banfield Pet Hospital for signs of pain for cats and dogs — and, folks, it’s definitely our job to be observant and schedule a visit with a professional if you think there’s a problem.
“As a pet owner, it’s important to be in tune with your pet’s behavior and habits – and take action when you notice or suspect something is ‘off,'” says Emi Saito, VMD, MSPH, MBA, DACVPM. “The earlier you catch and address potential signs of pain or illness with your veterinarian, the better your chances are of getting your pet back to a comfortable place.”
Read on for general signs that your pet is in pain:
1. Heavy or labored breathing/panting.
Take a minute to listen to your pet in a calm setting (not during a competitive game of fetch). What do you hear? If your pet is breathing heavy, panting, or it sounds like breathing is labored, something could be amiss. “Dogs and cats can be quite skilled at concealing pain,” Saito explains. “Unlike people, pets can’t explicitly tell us that they are in pain or experiencing discomfort.”
2. Increased heart rate.
You’re not a veterinarian, so it’s hard to determine an increased heart rate on your own — that’s why it’s so important to schedule regular check ups. A vet exam can help spot potential problems before they become full blown ones. “Even with chronic, irreversible conditions like osteoarthritis, the earlier we diagnose and begin treating this condition, the better,” says Saito. “When a disease like osteoarthritis is diagnosed early, your veterinarian can work with you to implement a management plan that not only includes pain management but also may be able to slow the disease’s progress.”
3. Whimpering or increased vocalization.
Is your pet the strong, silent type? If there’s suddenly a lot of talking going on, like whimpering, crying or out of the ordinary vocalization, that’s something to pay attention to. But, as much as we’d like them to be more vocal when they’re experiencing pain, not all pets will cry out if something’s hurting. “Just like people, each pet may react to pain differently,” Saito says. “Some will visibly or audibly react to only the slightest discomfort, while others will not react until they are experiencing severe pain.”
4. Decreased appetite/reduced eating.
If your usually-voracious eater is turning his or her nose up at favorite foods, that’s a sign that your buddy doesn’t feel good. It’s easy to understand: You’re not necessarily going to want your most coveted meals when you’re feeling crappy, and neither is your pet. “Just as is the case for people, being in pain affects a pet’s quality of life,” says Saito. “As pet owners and caregivers, we all want to do what we can to ensure our pets have the best quality of life possible.”
Some dogs can be shaky to begin with — and dog owners can be very familiar with wiggle butt! — but noticeable shaking or trembling in a calm environment (especially movements that are newly observed) are signs that something could be hurting.
You know the feeling: When you’re experiencing pain or discomfort it can be impossible to get comfortable no matter where you are, and hardly anything can take your mind off of it. Pets can experience that same restlessness during times that used to be peaceful, like naps or nighttime sleep.
7. Withdrawn or a mood/personality change.
If your usually social dog or cat is retreating to a safe, quiet place, there could be a reason. “It’s important for pet owners to be aware of their pet’s ‘normal’ behaviors and remain attuned to what can sometimes seem to be subtle changes in that behavior,” Saito explains. “Partner with your veterinarian when this happens – a thorough physical examination can help discern whether the changes you’ve noticed are due to pain, or something else.”
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