Pain in Cats and Dogs

Pain in Cats and Dogs

Animals Affected

All animals, regardless of species or age, experience pain.


Animals feel pain under the same circumstances as people. Anything that would cause pain in a person will cause pain in pets.


Symptoms of pain differ among species.


Cats instinctively hide pain. Therefore, signs of pain in cats are usually subtle. A cat in pain may:

  • Hide or act quiet and withdrawn.
  • Lose its appetite.
  • Breathe rapidly or pant.
  • Act agitated or refuse to lie down, rest, or sleep.
  • Become aggressive or suffer personality changes.
  • Limp, favor a painful area, or resent it when a painful area is touched.

Vocalization (howling or crying) may be a sign of anxiety, agitation, fear, hunger, or severe pain.   Most cats suffering from pain do not vocalize.  Lack of vocalization should not be construed as absence of pain.


Dogs’ responses to pain vary. Some dogs are very stoic, and will show few outward signs even when in extreme pain.  Others are more dramatic, and will make their pain quite clear.  A dog in pain may:

  • Whine, whimper, or vocalize. This occurs less often in cats.
  • Pant.
  • Limp, favor a painful area, or resent it when a painful area is touched.
  • Act agitated or refuse to lie down, rest, or sleep.
  • Become aggressive or suffer personality changes.
  • Lose its appetite.
  • Stand with its back arched.
  • Hide or act quiet and withdrawn.

Risk Factors

Causes of pain in pets may include:


Pain is a very real medical problem and should be treated. Pain delays healing from surgery, dental work, and trauma. Decreased appetite from pain can lead to deterioration of body condition (loss of muscle mass) and unhealthy weight loss. Pain can cause decreased activity and quality of life. Pain can disrupt a pet’s relationship with its owner.  It can lead to personality changes and aggression.  Pain deserves to be treated for its own sake.


Diagnosis of pain is based on recent events in the pet’s history and the manifestation of symptoms listed above.  Because many animals hide their pain, any time it is suspected that an animal is in pain, the pain should be treated.


A large number of pain management solutions are available for dogs. Unfortunately, fewer options are available for cats.

Human pain medications generally are not safe for pets. Never administer human medications to pets without first consulting a veterinarian.

Frequently used painkillers in pets include non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as Rimadyl® (carprofen), Deramaxx® (deracoxib), EtoGesic® (etodolac), Metacam® (meloxicam), Previcox® (firocoxib) and aspirin.  Opiate painkillers such as butorphanol, buprenorphrine, fentanyl, tramadol and morphine are used in some circumstances.  Amantadine, gabapentin and amitriptyline also may be employed in pain management.

Pain management medications may cause serious side effects and may not be compatible with other medications. They should be used only under the supervision of a veterinarian.

Many types of pain can be treated with gentle massage, physical therapy, or warm compresses. These methods of pain management are often overlooked, but can be very effective.

Formulations of glucosamine, which is derived from animal cartilage, can be administered orally or by injection to treat some types of pain. The effectiveness of oral glucosamine is controversial.

Studies have shown that acupuncture and acupressure may relieve pain in some instances.

Lasers of specific frequencies, stem cell therapy, and extracorporeal shock wave therapy are new and promising therapies for certain types of pain.


Effective treatment will lead to improvement of symptoms.


Pain should not be confused with suffering. Animals can suffer without experiencing pain. However, pain always causes suffering.

Copyright © Eric Barchas, DVM All rights reserved.
The contents of this page are provided for general informational purposes only. Under no circumstances should this page be substituted for professional consultation with a veterinarian.