Body language, expression and demeanor, although sometimes subtle, can tell you a lot about
how your pet feels
By Kim Campbell Thornton
Andrews McMeel Syndication
We know when we’re in pain, and our families and friends usually know, too, from our grimaces, grunts and outright complaints about that bum knee, painful surgical site or side effects from cancer treatment.
But while most of us are aware that pets feel pain, too, it’s not always easy to recognize because an animal’s first instinct is to hide pain. Since September is Animal Pain Awareness Month, it’s a great time to learn how to recognize pain in pets and what treatments can help.
What does pet pain look like? Sometimes it’s obvious, indicated by limping or crying. Other signs of pain require some knowledge of animal body language. Hunched posture, licking lips, flattened ears, panting and stiffness on standing are among the signals that a pet is hurting. Changes in behavior can also indicate pain: appetite loss, no longer running to the door to greet you, hiding under or behind a piece of furniture, reluctance to play or wanting to cut a walk short. Often, signs can be subtle and easy to overlook.
A good way to get to know what pain looks like in pets is to consult one of the many pet pain scales available. Animal pain scales are available for cats, dogs, horses and rabbits. Your veterinarian may have one, or you can look for one online.
Pain scales show examples of body language and facial expressions, usually accompanied by descriptions of the pet’s demeanor. For instance, according to Colorado State University’s Feline Acute Pain Scale (which ranges from 0 to 4), a cat with a score of 0 is content and quiet, comfortable when resting and interested in or curious about their surroundings, while a cat with a score of 4 may be prostrate, unresponsive or rigid to avoid painful movement. The Feline Grimace Scale uses photos of actual cats to demonstrate facial expressions that signify pain.
In dogs, the CSU Canine Acute Pain Scale (which also ranges from 0 to 4) says dogs with a score of 1 may be slightly unsettled or restless, flinching on palpation. At level 2, they look uncomfortable when resting, may whimper or cry, look worried and aren’t eager to interact with people.
The Bristol Rabbit Pain Scale has scores from 0 to 3. A bunny with a score of 0 is similar to a cat with a score of zero, but rabbits that score 2 or 3 are dull or unresponsive, inactive and have a body that is stiff or hunched, with eyes closed.
Any signs of pain warrant a veterinary visit to discover the source. We used to assume that middle-aged or older animals were simply slowing down, but age doesn’t mean pain is a given.
“Owners so often think that limping is a sign of old age, and it’s not,” says Tamara Grubb, DVM, Ph.D., a veterinary anesthesia and analgesia specialist at Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine. “We should still have the same gait, maybe we’re slower, even if we’re old, and so should dogs. Limping is definitely a sign of pain.”
Ways to treat or manage pet pain include medication, physical rehab, acupuncture, laser therapy and massage.
“One of the trends in drug development is a focus on longer-duration drugs for acute and chronic pain that will not only provide longer analgesia but will also decrease pet-parent care burden,” Grubb says.
Injectable drugs such as Nocita and Zorbium for acute pain and Solensia and Librela (the latter expected to be available later this year) for arthritis pain in cats and dogs are administered at the veterinary clinic. They offer pain relief for longer periods and don’t require pet owners to wrestle pills or liquids into their animals.
If those aren’t options for your pet, your veterinarian may recommend multimodal treatment: use of multiple medications or therapies, which affect different parts of the pain pathway. They include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), complementary therapies such as acupuncture and targeted therapies such as platelet-rich-plasma injections.
Q: We adore our 6-month-old kitten, except for one thing: She bites when playing. We have shrieked, yelled “no,” scolded her and flicked her nose. How can we get her not to play rough?
A: As you have learned, cat (and kitten) bites are painful. Beyond the pain and potential injury, cat bites can cause serious infections -- within hours, even. Immediately wash them thoroughly with soap and water, and see your doctor for further treatment.
Kittens normally bite each other in play. If they bite too hard, they hear about it from their playmate and take things down a notch. When kittens don’t stay long enough with mom and littermates or don’t get early enough socialization with people, they may not learn to inhibit bites. Using hands to play with kittens can also incite a bite. Here’s how to tame the teeth.
First, stop punishing your kitten. That can make biting worse, causing your kitten to escalate biting into fighting.
Watch body language, especially the tip of the tail. If it starts to twitch, stop playing immediately, and walk away.
Don’t use hands or feet in play. Keep your kitten at arms’ length with wand toys that she can chase and pounce on, or toss crinkle or stuffed toys.
Avoid touching her tummy, even if she rolls onto her back. That’s a defensive position, not an invitation to pet. Focus petting between the ears or beneath the chin.
If you miss the signal that she is overstimulated and she bites down, freeze! Don’t screech or hit her. If you’re not moving or making a sound, she’ll likely let go. Walk away and let her relax before interacting with her again. Be consistent, and she should mature into a cat with nice mouth manners. Learn more here: fearfreehappyhomes.com/teach-kittens-gentle-play-yes-you-can. -- Dr. Marty Becker and Mikkel Becker
Do you have a pet question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker.
-- Besides Animal Pain Awareness Month, September is Happy Cat Month, National Service Dog Month, National Pet Insurance Month, National Disaster Preparedness Month (for pets, too) and Responsible Dog Ownership Month. Other pet-centric events in September are National Deaf Dog Awareness Week and National Dog Week (last full week in September); Adopt-a-Less-Adoptable-Pet Week (third week in September); National Iguana Awareness Day, Sept. 8; National Pet Memorial Day, Sept. 10; National Pet Bird Day, Sept. 17; International Rabbit Day, Sept. 23; and World Rabies Day, Sept. 28.
-- You can get more than books at the library. Two Detroit libraries, in partnership with Detroit Animal Care and Control, are offering free hourlong pet care sessions that include information on where to access spay/neuter services, microchipping and veterinary care. Local experts such as veterinarians and trainers will be there to answer questions. The sessions are scheduled at various times at Lincoln Detroit Public Library and Edison Detroit Public Library. Find more information here: friendsofdacc.org/classes. Not in Detroit? Ask if your local library or shelter offers similar programs.
-- Honeybees are the new chickens, with approximately 100,000 hobbyists keeping backyard hives. And like any livestock -- bees qualify as the tiniest of livestock -- they sometimes need veterinary care. The University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine has a beekeeping program to teach veterinarians how to care for buzzing patients. Professor Joerg Mayer, who has a background in beekeeping himself, began the program, which allows students to work hands-on with hives. “Usually, students in the veterinary program don’t get the chance to work with actual animals until around their fourth year, but through this program, they are learning how to treat and care for small livestock,” says Mayer. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker
ABOUT PET CONNECTION
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet care experts. Veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker is founder of the Fear Free organization, co-founder of VetScoop.com and author of many best-selling pet care books. Kim Campbell Thornton is an award-winning journalist and author who has been writing about animals since 1985. Mikkel Becker is a behavior consultant and lead animal trainer for Fear Free Pets. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at Facebook.com/Kim.CampbellThornton and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at Facebook.com/MikkelBecker and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.