Signs of Pain in Dogs and Cats

“My dog doesn’t want to run anymore, but that’s just because he’s old.”

“My cat won’t jump to the top of the scratching post anymore.”

“My dog is limping, but he’s not in pain.”

“Sparky isn’t yelping or whining, he must feel fine.”

These are all sentiments I’ve heard from loving owners who want the best for their pets but who haven’t been educated in the signs of pain their dog or cat may be showing. Dogs and cats naturally hide evidence of illness, including signs of pain, as much as possible – this gives them an advantage in nature, but it makes it difficult for their owners to know that they need medical help. 

I want to take you through some of the most common signs of pain in dogs and cats, so that you are better prepared to recognize when your pet might need help. It’s important to remember that pain is just a symptom, not a diagnosis. If you suspect your pet is experiencing pain, an exam with your veterinarian is a good starting point to figure out what might be causing it.


Changes in behavior or personality can be subtle and slow, or they can happen much more quickly, depending on the underlying cause. You might notice your pet does not like to be petted or brushed anymore. Perhaps they are more irritable, maybe even aggressive, particularly when touched. Your dog or cat might be hiding more or spending time away from the hustle and bustle of the household. Pets, particularly cats, might become more vocal. Even increased purring can signal pain in cats – this is thought to be a form of self-soothing in the face of discomfort, fear, or pain.


A decrease in appetite can signal many potential issues, including nausea/GI distress, anxiety, respiratory issues, nasal congestion, and also pain. If you’ve noticed your pet eating or drinking less, eating slowly, or dropping food after they pick it up, these could be signs that your pet is experiencing pain.


Is your dog suddenly having bathroom accidents in the house? Maybe they are urinating or defecating more often, less often, or in a different spot. Some pets even vocalize or cry out while eliminating. Cats may avoid the litterbox and seek out other places to eliminate. Any of these changes could indicate pain, and your pet should be evaluated by a veterinarian.


Observe your pet closely for outward signs of potential pain, which can include:

  • Holding their ears in an unusual position
  • Squinting or pawing at their eyes
  • Hunched or stiff posture
  • Matted fur, unkempt fur, less self-grooming
  • Swellings on or under the skin
  • Excessive licking/chewing of a particular area


Have you noticed your dog no longer jumps up on you to greet you? Maybe your cat isn’t jumping to the top of the scratching post like he used to. When you take your dog on a walk, is she moving more slowly or walking with a limp? Have you noticed your dog has a hard time getting up from a sitting or laying position, or your cat suddenly sleeping in a different position? Perhaps your dog is panting more with certain types of physical activity. All of these may be indications of pain.

You know your pet better than anyone else, so if you notice a change in their demeanor that lasts more than 1-2 days, please have them evaluated by a veterinarian. Catching medical problems early means there’s a better chance to treat or fully manage the condition. When in doubt, check it out!