Pain is a highly unpleasant experience, both the sensation and the emotional component. There are many types of pain, and individual people will experience different levels of pain and therefore altered responses. There have been many studies into the response to pain in cats and dogs, and our understanding of this is really important to how we treat and manage painful medical conditions in our pets. 

Do cats and dogs feel pain like we do?

Physiologically, there is a lot of evidence that cats, dogs and other mammals likely feel pain just like humans. The same pathway of pain receptors leading to nerves, leading to the spinal cord and brain is present, meaning that painful events are likely to be processed by the nervous system of cats and dogs in a very similar way to us.

Is all pain the same?

Pain is pain, right? Actually, there are different types of pain, which may all be experienced differently. Understanding these differing causes and types of pain, and how they may be felt, helps us to be able to tell when cats and dogs are painful, and how best we can relieve their discomfort.

1) Visceral pain 

A common form of pain that occurs when there is damage to the internal organs. This then activates pain receptors in the chest, the tummy area or the pelvic region. In humans, visceral pain is often described as dull or pressure-like pain, which is quite vague in area and hard to accurately describe.

2) Somatic pain 

This is caused by injury to the skin, muscles and bones in the body. It can be caused by trauma, inflammation or repetitive vigorous activity or stretching. Often described as an ache or throb, it is constant and stays in one place. 

3) Neuropathic pain 

Caused by damage to the nerves themselves, and can be caused by injury or operations. It can be experienced differently, with sensations such as burning, stabbing, electric shock or pins and needles. 

Pain can also be categorised as ‘acute’ or ‘chronic’. 

Acute

Acute pain is the sudden onset of a painful sensation that occurs immediately at time of injury, such as a broken bone. It is a warning sign to the body that something is wrong. It is usually more obvious to describe or observe. 

Chronic

Chronic pain is pain that lasts at least three months and can be much more difficult to spot, as the animal has had to adapt to it. It can continue even if the original source, such as an injury, is healed. 

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Don’t animals tolerate pain better than humans?

Animals often appear to tolerate pain well – for example still walking despite a broken limb, eating despite terrible dental disease and generally seeming to cope in scenarios where a person may not. However, this is likely to be a myth based on not recognising subtle behavioural cues that reveal cats and dogs’ discomfort as they cannot communicate with us through speech. 

Animals, even domesticated ones, also have a strong survival instinct to continue eating, drinking and moving, and cats especially are well known for hiding signs of pain very well. Pain tolerance (the degree of pain that is accepted without causing changes to behaviour) also is likely to vary between species and individual animals, just as it does between human individuals. 

How do we know if a cat or dog is in pain?

Sadly, cats and dogs cannot tell us what they are feeling. However, they can communicate in other ways, through their body language and behaviour. It is also likely that as cats and dogs experience pain in a similar way to humans, therefore we can make some educated guesses as to how they might be feeling, for example after a surgical procedure. 

Cats and dogs are very different from us, however, as well as from each other. Although they may experience the same types of pain that we do, they can respond in very different ways, which can lead to their pain being ‘missed’. 

Signs of pain in cats

Cats are very good at hiding pain, especially chronic pain, and often show only subtle changes in their behaviours and habits. Here are some common signs to look for.

  • Reduced activity and mobility, limping
  • Change in interactions with owners
  • Loss of appetite
  • Hiding away
  • Reduced grooming, or excessive grooming of certain areas
  • Hissing, spitting and aggression, especially when touched

Signs of pain in dogs

Dogs can be more overt with signs of pain, but their behaviours and body language may still need some interpreting. Here are some common signs of pain in dogs.

  • Whimpering, howling
  • Growling or aggression
  • Decreased interaction with owner
  • Refusal to move/walk, or limping
  • Decreased appetite
  • Self-trauma, excessive licking

Isn’t a little bit of pain a good thing?

Another commonly held myth is that some pain is good for our pets, preventing them from overdoing it whilst recovering from injury or surgery. However, this is not correct. There is no evidence that ongoing pain from injury, inflammation or nerve damage is beneficial to recovery. There are lots of ways to help keep our pets calm and rested whilst they recover, whilst still providing adequate pain relief. 

What should I do if my cat or dog is in pain?

If you think your pet may be in pain, always contact your veterinary surgeon. Giving human painkillers to pets can be very dangerous, it is always best to seek professional advice. If your pet is injured, try not to move them and seek veterinary advice immediately. 

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