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Read your pet's body language for signs of discomfort

Dogs and cats have their own signals for telling us when they are hurting—look out for subtle signs and don’t self-medicate

Pain in animals can be challenging to detect. That’s why it’s essential to stay vigilant. Photo: PIxabay
Pain in animals can be challenging to detect. That’s why it’s essential to stay vigilant. Photo: PIxabay

As a veterinarian, I often hear remarks from pet parents like, “She’s slowing down. She’s not jumping on the couch like she used to.” These words reveal something deeper—the struggles pets may be facing when they feel pain. Take, for instance, the sight of a German shepherd with visibly thinner hind limbs hobbling into the clinic. It’s a poignant reminder that pain can be subtle and easily overlooked by even the most attentive pet parent.

Dogs and cats have their own signals for telling us when they are hurting, and figuring these out can be a bit like detective work. Cats, especially, are good at hiding their discomfort.

When a dog experiences hip pain, you might notice a subtle shift in their movement over time. They might start relying more on their front legs, putting less weight on their hind limbs. This can result in the muscles in their hind limbs shrinking because they are not being used as much. Those lean hind limbs are often a telltale sign that something’s not right. Hip pain is commonly linked to arthritis, especially in older dogs. But even younger dogs, particularly those with genetic conditions like hip dysplasia, can develop arthritis and experience discomfort earlier than expected.

Also read: Are you ready to bring home a dog?

There are other subtle signs to look out for. They may show discomfort when touched in the affected area, exhibit bunny-hopping behaviour while navigating stairs, and even bunny-hop while running instead of using their hind limbs in a coordinated manner.

While whimpering, whining, and limping are clear indicators of pain in dogs, there are other signs too. Dogs experiencing abdominal pain may adopt a hunched posture. They might growl or snap if approached near the affected area. Pain related to internal organs, like the pancreas or intestines, could manifest as vomiting shortly after eating or a complete loss of appetite.

Constant licking or chewing on a specific area can also be a sign that the dog is in pain. Interestingly, this behaviour isn’t always limited to the painful spot itself. Dogs might incessantly lick their paws, for example, even if another part of their body is causing discomfort, as it can provide them with some relief.

When it comes to cats, look for subtle cues. If it’s avoiding activities it used to enjoy, it could be a sign of pain. While jumping off a height, if it seems to slide down rather than gracefully springing off, it may indicate discomfort.

Unlike dogs, cats typically don’t vocalise their pain through yowling or crying. Instead, they may exhibit changes in their litter box habits, especially if they are experiencing hip or joint pain. They might defecate or urinate outside of the litter box, unable to navigate in and out of it. It’s worth noting that many middle-aged cats develop osteoarthritis, similar to older dogs, but these small signs are often overlooked by pet parents, resulting in undiagnosed pain. Pain in cats can manifest in various ways, such as changes in grooming habits and increased hiding. Hiding behaviour can also indicate issues like stress or illness.

Also read: To take a pet to a dog park or not? That’s the question

Dental pain in pets can manifest in unique ways. You may notice increased drooling, pawing at their face, changes in food preferences, or even food falling out of their mouth while they eat.

It’s crucial to take action to alleviate their discomfort. At the same time, avoid administering any medication without consulting a veterinarian first. For example, paracetamol is toxic to cats, and even a single dose can be fatal.

In older pets, chronic pain, particularly in the back or hips, may require lifelong management. This can include a combination of pain medication, physiotherapy, swimming, and holistic approaches like acupuncture.

Pain in animals can be challenging to detect. That’s why it’s essential to stay vigilant for signs of pain and take proactive steps.

Nameeta Nadkarni is a practising veterinary soft tissue surgeon and pet blogger from Mumbai.

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