Does it Hurt? How Pets Communicate Health Concerns


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“If only they could talk to us. I’m sure most of us have had this thought, or even spoken it aloud at some point when trying to figure out if something was bothering our pet. I hear similar sentiments from dog and cat owners weekly when there is concern for illness. It definitely would simplify my job if I could ask Lola where she felt pain, or if I could have Bentley run through a list of all his symptoms. Although dogs, cats, and other animals are incapable of speech, they do possess other methods for communication. As research in animal behavior and medicine has evolved, veterinarians have learned to identify these more subtle communications. Pet owners, as well, can learn to identify signals that may indicate their fur friend is not feeling the best.

One of the biggest concerns for a sick animal that owners have is whether or not their pet is experiencing pain. “Is she hurting?” In some cases, the communication is clear—I touch a swollen limb and the dog yelps. Vocalization is often associated with acute (sudden) pain. This could range from a sharp cry to a whimper. Of course vocalizing does not only indicate pain—it can also be used to communicate fear, stress, excitement, or other feelings—but when combined with touch or lameness, a cry can certainly clue us into the possibility that something hurts.

There are other more subtle signals that dogs and cats display when in pain. Veterinarians use a number of different scales or assessment tools that have been researched and validated as means of detecting pain. One example is a “grimace scale.” A grimace scale evaluates a patient’s facial expression and posture and can help determine if an animal is experiencing pain. These scales were first developed in laboratory settings for mice but now include scales for other species, including rabbits and cats—see the chart, Feline Grimace Scale. When a cat feels pain, several changes occur to its facial expression—ears position further back, eyes are less open, whiskers are more straight (less relaxed), muzzle becomes more tight, and the head tends to droop downward. Using this scale can help determine if a cat is in pain and can be helpful to determine if pain medications are working after surgery or other procedures.

Another scoring system exists for dogs developed by Colorado State University veterinary program. They created a Canine Acute Pain Scale, which also evaluates a number of factors including body position, vocalization, reaction to touch, restlessness, and other behaviors to help assess pain in the acute (sudden) setting. Just like us, when dogs do not feel well, their behavior is going to change. The aforementioned are some cues owners can use to realize their dog may need veterinary care.

Feline Grimace Scale

Feline Grimace Scale


Other assessment tools and scales exist and can be found through an online search. Specific examples include the Glasgow Composite Measure Pain Scale (GCMPS) for orthopedic or soft tissue injuries in dogs, University of Melbourne Pain Scale (UMPS) in dogs, and Colorado State University Acute Pain Scales for cats. Some of the resources even have downloadable apps—see the online feline grimace scale website.

Besides pain, other medical conditions can also result in activity changes. Although a dog or cat may not be intentionally telling their owner something is wrong, the behaviors themselves can communicate a disease process may be occurring. Most owners I see in the clinic are attentive to these changes, which can include increased water intake or urination, accidents in the house in a normally house- or litter-box trained pet, decreased or increased appetite, vomiting, and excessive licking or scratching. Animals will frequently withdraw, become less active or quiet, sometimes hide, or act guarded or irritated when they don’t feel well—just like people! A veterinarian would call all of these “clinical signs” and uses them to pinpoint the underlying malady. Often, additional diagnostics such as lab work, imaging, fecal tests, or infectious disease panels will be needed to determine the actual diagnosis.

Canine Pain Scale

■ Comfortable when resting

■ Happy, content

■ Interested in or curious about surroundings

■ Content to slightly unsettled or restless

■ Distracted easily by surroundings

■ Looks uncomfortable when resting

■ May whimper or cry

■ Droopy ears, worried facial expression (arched eye brows, darting eyes)

■ Reluctant to respond when beckoned

■ Not eager to interact with people or surroundings but will look around to see what is going on

■ Unsettled, crying, groaning

■ Guards or protects wound by altering weight distribution (i.e., limping, shifting body position)

■ May be unwilling to move all or part of body

■ Constantly groaning or screaming when unattended

■ May bite or chew at wound, but unlikely to move

■ Potentially unresponsive to surroundings

■ Difficult to distract from pain


Dr. Michael Forney

Dr. Michael Forney

Dr. Michael Forney, DVM, is a UC Davis graduate (c/o 2018) working in general practice with special interests in behavior and preventative medicine. VCA Rancho Mirage Animal Hospital is located at 71-075 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage, CA. Visit*

Michael Forney, DVM
Michael Forney, DVM
Dr. Michael Forney, DVM, is a UC Davis graduate (c/o 2018) working in general practice at VCA Rancho Mirage. His special interests include behavior and preventative medicine. VCA Rancho Mirage Animal Hospital is located at 71-075 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage, CA. (760) 346-6103. Visit


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