Pain in Animals

Written by Dr Suzanne Libel

Dr Suzanne Libel wanted to highlight an issue that she sees regularly in clinic, which is owners having difficulty identifying pain in their pets. 

Most people these days agree that animals do feel physical pain. We understand that if we stepped on a dog's foot he/she might yelp? But as Vets we see many animals that we feel are in pain but their owners often report that the animal is fine. They often feel like this because the animal is eating and drinking fine.  

So how do we assess an animal’s pain? Well it can be quite tricky, even for a trained professional.

In an evolutionary sense, animals, especially prey animal such as birds, would put themselves at a huge disadvantage if they showed any pain. If animals in the wild show pain they are at risk of being taken by other predators. Because of this, many animals will try to hide their pain, and they do this very well.

Animals will also change their behaviours significantly to minimise their pain. Often we see animals that stop moving as much to try to minimise the pain of their arthritis. Cats often just sleep more or stop jumping as much. A dog with a fractured tooth (very painful to us) will often just stop chewing on that side of their mouth. Pet owners are recommended to observe their pet’s behaviours and if something has changed mention it to your Vet. Quite often it’s not just your pet getting older, they may actually be in pain.

Unlike us, animals cannot understand the cause of pain – so don’t behave like we would. They often just make do and carry on. In many cases we see animals that are obviously in pain (such as animals with broken limbs) and they are still trying to move around as if nothing was wrong – Ouch!  Owners are forgiven for assuming that their pet may just have a slightly sore leg, but if your pet is showing any signs of lameness then it will be quite sore for them.