How to Tell if Your Pet is in Pain

This information is not meant to be a substitute for veterinary care. Always follow the instructions provided by your veterinarian.

Yes, animals can “talk” to you if you know how to read their subtle body language.

Pain is universal and one of the most common feelings animals will convey. Obviously, most owners can detect a limp or a painful cry, but pain that’s chronic, or moderate enough to withstand, takes more scrutiny to recognize. Dogs and cats generally show a change in behavior or temperament when they’re uncomfortable. A normally happy and affectionate pet may become irritable and refuse to be held or petted. A normally rambunctious dog may prefer to sit or lie quietly and be left alone. Additionally, if a dog or cat can reach the painful area, such as a paw, they may lick, scratch, or bite it in an attempt to make it feel better. Unfortunately, they may inadvertently inflict self-injury by repeatedly rubbing or scratching the area. This is seen frequently in animals with ear infections that dig at the skin behind the sore ear with their rear claws.


Horses in pain become restless and paw at the ground. They may look at the painful area and try to kick at it or roll around in the dirt. If the pain is very severe, they may refuse to move and prefer to stand with their head drooping. These are all common signs of abdominal pain, or colic, in horses.


Cattle frequently grind their teeth when they are in pain. They may groan when they get up or take only shallow breaths. In dairy cows, a drop in milk production is often a reaction to a painful hoof or udder.


Birds will frequently pluck their feathers from a painful area. It should be noted however, that feather plucking, also called feather picking, can be a behavioral problem seen in otherwise healthy birds.


According to Dr. Erik Stauber, a veterinarian at Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, and specialist in treating exotic species, “An iguana may react to abrupt pain, like an injection, by trying to bite, whipping its tail, or trying to escape. If the pain is deep and generally debilitating the animal may be depressed and hesitate to do any physical activity.”


Overall, when it comes to detecting pain, you should look for a change, or abnormality in your pet’s behavior. You know them better than anyone else and if you suspect something is wrong, take them to your veterinarian.

Everyone has experienced pain and knows how debilitating it can be. Your pet’s no different, and they have a limited language to convey their discomfort. Take the time to "listen", because the only good thing about any pain, is the moment it goes away.

Finally, don’t ever give a human pain medication to your pet unless your veterinarian has specifically recommended it. Common over the counter painkillers, such as acetaminophen, are very poisonous to certain pets.

This Pet Health Topic was written by Sarah Hoggan, Washington State University, Class of 2001.

Washington State University assumes no liability for injury to you or your pet incurred by following these descriptions or procedures.

Give Now

Did you find this information useful? Please consider helping us train the veterinarians of tomorrow by making a gift to the college.

The Pet Health Topics Web site is a free service provided by the College of Veterinary Medicine at Washington State University. Your donation will help support veterinary education and research.

Washington State University