Pain Management For Pets – Pain Behaviors

Cat licking and overgrooming painful area on extremity.

Many pets experience pain and pet parents often don’t even know!

Would you have known this?

Animals have got their own ways to experience and express pain. Sometimes they show a definite pain behavior that is fairly easy to recognize, but sometimes they don’t and still suffer pain.

Usually it is very difficult to judge just how much an animal suffers. However, there are some specific body positions and behavior patterns that will help you to recognize when your dog or cat is in pain and needs help.


  • One specific behavior alone does not always mean your pet suffers;
  • Pets behave in their normal environment differently than they do, for example, during a visit at your vet’s practice;
  • Pets show behavior specific to their species, breed, age, gender, personality and the grade and duration of pain;
  • Depending on the nature of your pets they try to disguise their suffering from other humans or animals (here especially potential “predators”).


1. Posture and Level of Activity


The more intensive pain becomes, pets and animals will alter their body posture and their level of activity.

Postures that are indicating something is wrong in your dog or cat can be a tense or tucked up belly, lying or sitting in an unusual position or showing an abnormal positioning of body parts, for example an extended back leg when sitting down or an extended neck/head.

Some pets are resting in a position you would not see normally: lying on their sternum or being curled up.  Also, if awake they may sit or lie in an unusual way or they act like a statue and sit in an upright position, avoiding any movement.

Some pets start to become restless or anxious and some can become rather aggressive.

Cat licking and overgrooming painful area on extremity.
Cat licking and overgrooming painful area on extremity.

Often they start to lick or chew the painful area excessively.

For your vet it is really important to know if you observe any changes to your pet’s normal behavior pattern. This information is very useful and usually only you, who sees and lives together with your pet 24/7 will be able to report anything that has changed lately.

Avoiding  Movements

Pets that try to avoid to move around suffer from moderate to severe pain.  Not moving much is a protective behavior, if pain is induced by locomotion.  If they have to move a little you will often see an abnormal gait, such as limping, stiffness or a stilted gait. Beside these signs pets may express pain also by showing more or less aggression or become quite vocal.

Abnormal movement does also include restlessness and continuos activity, circling, thrashing, etc.

On the other hand you can also see reluctance of moving around paired with unresponsiveness and depression.



Avoiding Lying Positions

If a pet does not want to lie down it’s usually because of acute and severe pain in the chest (thorax) or abdomen. Most dogs and cats with painful bellies are trying to sit for hours or get into the so-called praying position, where they put their fronts onto the ground and their back ends into the air.

They may also try to sit down frequently or avoid sitting down altogether and instead prefer standing for hours.  If they fall asleep they usually sink to the ground and wake up suddenly (because  of the pain) to go immediately back into their sitting or standing position.



Alternating Body Positions

Continuos activity and restlessness are signs of feeling uncomfortable. Dogs and cats that try to change body positioning very often, will be standing up and lying down in a different position again and again.  Dogs and cats in severe pain will show this behavior, which goes often hand in hand with anxiousness and/or even aggression and in very bad cases they may become dangerous to manage.

Acute pain can cause a pet to become submissive and depressed.  Depression is on the other side more associated with chronic medical conditions that are painful.

The more severe pain gets, the more often you will see a protective behavior and aggression even in animals that are normally never aggressive at all. Handling or even only touching your pet can result in your pet trying to bite you.

Dogs can become quite fearful and timid, whereas cats try to hide or escape to a place where they are not being disturbed and feel safe.


Decreased Activity Level

If bones, joints, muscles, tendons and ligaments of extremities are injured you will usually observe lameness. This can be expressed in more or less obvious limping. Limping means less weight bearing which is helping to avoid more damage to the already injured area and tissue structures. Limping does also decrease the pain sensation that is associated with weight bearing.

Stiffness, reluctance to move and a stilted gait are often seen when your pet suffers from arthritis and/or osteoarthritis in the hips. Some dogs would try to shift  more weight onto the front legs by positioning their front limbs more backwards.





Author: Dr Ellen

Veterinary surgeon. Special interest in Veterinary Acupuncture. Polyglott: German, Hungarian, English, French. Love website creation, working online. Decaf green tea addict. Hungarian-Vizsla-owned mum.

4 thoughts on “Pain Management For Pets – Pain Behaviors”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *