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Veterinary Teaching Hospital

How to tell if your pet is in pain

Pain is universal and one of the most common feelings animals can convey. Most owners can detect a limp or a painful cry, but pain that’s chronic or moderate enough to withstand takes more scrutiny to recognize.

When it comes to detecting pain, you should look for a change or abnormality in your pet’s behavior. You know them better than anyone else and if you suspect something is wrong, take them to your veterinarian.

Everyone has experienced pain and knows how debilitating it can be. Your pet’s no different, but they have a limited language to convey their discomfort. Take the time to “listen” and watch for the signs.

What are some of the signs that a dog or cat is in pain?

Dogs and cats generally show a change in behavior or temperament when they’re uncomfortable. A normally happy and affectionate pet may become irritable and refuse to be held or petted. A rambunctious dog may prefer to sit or lie quietly and be left alone.

If a dog or cat can reach the painful area, such as a paw, they may lick, scratch, or bite it in an attempt to make it feel better. Unfortunately, they may inadvertently inflict self-injury by repeatedly rubbing or scratching the area. This is seen frequently in animals with ear infections that dig at the skin behind the sore ear with their rear claws.

What are some of the signs that a horse is in pain?

Horses in pain become restless and paw at the ground. They may look at the painful area and try to kick at it or roll around in the dirt. If the pain is very severe, they may refuse to move and prefer to stand with their head drooping. These are all common signs of abdominal pain, or colic, in horses.

What signs do cattle exhibit when they are in pain?

Cattle frequently grind their teeth when they are in pain. They may groan when they get up or take only shallow breaths. In dairy cows, a drop in milk production is often a reaction to a painful hoof or udder.

What are some of the signs that a bird is in pain?

Birds will frequently pluck their feathers from a painful area. It should be noted, however, that feather plucking, also called feather picking, can be a behavioral problem seen in otherwise healthy birds.

Can I give my pet pain human pain medications?

Don’t ever give human pain medication to your pet unless your veterinarian has specifically recommended it. Common over-the-counter painkillers, such as acetaminophen, are very poisonous to certain pets.

What should I do if my pet is in pain?

If your pet is showing symptoms of pain, contact your veterinarian or the WSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital at 509-335-0711.


This information is not meant to be a substitute for veterinary care. Always follow the instructions provided by your veterinarian. Washington State University assumes no liability for injury to you or your pet incurred by following these descriptions or procedures.