Dogs, Cats and Pain

Dr. Phil Zeltzman is a traveling, board-certified surgeon in Allentown, PA. His website is He is the co-author of “Walk a Hound, Lose a Pound” (

Kelly Serfas, a Certified Veterinary Technician in Bethlehem, PA, contributed to this article.

Recognizing when your cat or dog is in pain is quite a difficult task. In fact, it is one of the greatest challenges veterinarians and veterinary technicians face on a daily basis.

We believe that wild animals are genetically programmed to hide pain, sickness or weakness in order to avoid getting eaten by a predator. Unfortunately for us, our pets seem to have kept that ability—which makes our lives harder.

Therefore, we must look at our pets very closely, and try to pick up on subtle displays of discomfort or pain in order to help them. Sure, some pets will actually vocalize (crying, whimpering or howling when they‘re in pain), but most often it is much subtler than that. Worse, they may have been in pain for a while before we become aware of it.

Symptoms of dog pain
Dogs may express pain by limping, eating less, being less active, hunching their backs, becoming head shy or aggressive, being reluctant to allow touch, or being restless.

Symptoms of cat pain
Cats may show pain in many of the same ways as dogs but may also hide to avoid grooming or turn away from human contact.

Eye pain
Eye pain can occur for multiple reasons:

  • A scratch on the cornea
  • Glaucoma
  • A foreign body in the eye

You may notice that your pet is scratching at or trying to rub their eye. You may also notice redness, tearing or squinting.

If you ever suspect that your pet might be in pain, please take him to your family or emergency vet as soon as possible. The vet will perform a full physical exam on your pet, and possibly recommend doing further testing depending on the source of the pain.

Diagnosing pain
Some tests may help confirm your vet’s impressions:

  • X-rays may confirm the suspicion of a torn ligament
  • Blood work can reveal irritation of the pancreas (pancreatitis), a notoriously painful condition
  • Ultrasound can show masses in the belly and can confirm the suspicion of pancreatitis

Pain treatment
There are countless ways to treat pain. If your pet has a broken tooth, a dentistry procedure can fix it. If your dog has a broken leg, orthopedic surgery can fix it. If your cat has an ulcer in the eye, medications or surgery can help.

There are many pain medications available to us including anti-inflammatory drugs and opioids (morphine-like drugs). Some are made specifically for pets, whereas some are borrowed from the human field. Please don’t take it upon yourself to give human medications to your pets without veterinary advice. Just this weekend, I saw a dog who was hospitalized because of a bleeding ulcer after receiving Aleve. His owner was trying to avoid the cost of a veterinary visit, but ended up spending a fortune in emergency care and blood transfusions!

There are countless scenarios and your family or emergency vet can help you come up with options and solutions. Generally speaking, this involves treating the pain itself, and addressing its cause.

I feel very strongly that pain is not acceptable in 2014. Sometimes, we cannot entirely get rid of the discomfort, but in the vast majority of cases, we can treat pain.

If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian -- they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.