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Posted on Thu, Apr 21, 2011 : 9:41 a.m.

What to do when you suspect your pet is in pain, but hiding it

By Lorrie Shaw


Older dogs frequently have pain, as from arthritis — and it can in many cases be managed successfully.

flickr photo courtesy of pmarkham

Whether a patient comes in for an exam or is hospitalized at Westarbor Animal Hospital, they are graded for pain — that is, the staff does their best to assess the animal’s comfort, and to gauge any pain so that it can be managed effectively, rendering them more healthy and whole.

After all, it’s the purpose of their work there — to promote a pet’s health and well-being.

It’s common knowledge today in veterinary medicine that animals that are in pain do not thrive. Pain causes stress on the body, and over time can impact a companion animals overall health — also impeding healing.

When Dr. James Clarkson, DVM — owner of Westarbor — graduated from Michigan State University with his veterinary degree 33 years ago, he notes that addressing pain effectively was not a high priority then.

In a noticeably more reserved voice, Clarkson says, “I’m embarrassed that we didn’t do more to address pain in pets back then. Things have come so far in pain management. Because of that, pets are living better lives.”

The ability to treat a companion animal’s pain has made strides — which is a important thing — but the first step in being able to do that is identifying the fact that a pet is in pain to begin with.

And thus, my main purpose for getting in touch with Clarkson.

After writing about end-of life issues and euthanasia recently, several readers got in touch wondering how, in the first place, do you know that your pet is experiencing pain?

Well, it can be a bit challenging, but there are ways to tell.

But, first things first.

Make no mistake; pets experience pain just as we do, not less than we do — and they interpret it the same way. Animals have skin, tissue, muscles, joints, and nerve pathways, like humans.

There is one difference in humans and animals: One unfortunate aspect of once living in the wild that they have not lost, is that for animals, showing pain or lameness puts them at risk in many ways.

So, how do you ascertain if your pet is in pain? Clarkson offers some tips and clues to help you identify that:

Obvious -

Vocalizing, growling, whimpering, limping

Not-so-easy to distinguish -

  • Decreased activity level
  • Changes in behavior (pets many times with act withdrawn)
  • Accidents in the house (because they don’t want to get up/out due to painful mobility)
  • Shivering
  • Excessive grooming/licking (pets with arthritis do this commonly, or those with stomach pain)
  • Abnormal body position (not lying down naturally or favoring a part of the body)
  • Pensive posture; not erect, stiff-backed
  • Decreased appetite
  • Their behavior isn’t what you’d expect when you go to touch them.
  • Isolating themselves (cats more so will hide under a bed)

The most common culprits behind pain are sprains and arthritis.

Another interesting issue contributing to pain? Dentition. Clarkson indicated in our conversation, that more pets over the age of 3 or 4 years are seen in their office more frequently who are having dental pain. Indicators of that are:
  • Drooling
  • Leaving their hard food, but eating any wet food, if eating at all
  • Taking longer to eat
  • Choosing to forgo treats
  • Dogs not chewing on their chew toys or bones
  • Tilting their head in an odd way
  • Mouth odor

Adding that pet owners are usually pretty intuitive, Clarkson says that a good way to determine if your pet is suffering from pain is to engage with them — petting them or gentle grooming or massage to help localize the source of pain.

Do so with care, however. An animal in pain could react to your touch quickly. Pay close attention to your furry friend as you touch; gauging their reaction and ever important - their body language.

"If your pet gives you a clue that there is an area that is painful, don’t keep going over the animal to confirm a reaction — you could get bitten. Pets are pretty good at telling us how they are feeling. It’s important that we are listening,” Clarkson reassures, “Pet owners are our first line of defense when trying to decipher what is going on with a pet, and we rely on their observations to help.”

There are prescription medications that can be dispensed by a veterinarian to help alleviate the pain that a pet experiences, but that all depends on the source of the pain. And, pain can be treated successfully in two or three ways, in some cases — using an anti-inflammatory, local analgesics or possibly a narcotic.

Clarkston warns against using pain relievers made for humans, unless given the OK by your veterinarian, emphasizing that Tylenol is especially toxic to cats.

“Medications are metabolized very differently by animals. Dosages can vary due to age, weight and species.”

A last piece of advice from the doctor: If you're not comfortable with the way that your current vet is addressing your pet's pain, get a second opinion. There have been so many advances made in the past 20 years to help pets be comfortable, that they shouldn't be suffering so.

Lorrie Shaw is lead pets blogger for and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Shoot her an email or contact her at 734-904-7279.


Lynn Liston

Fri, Apr 22, 2011 : 3:25 p.m.

And when there is any question of illness or pain, it helps to have a wonderful Veterinary Clinic like Westarbor to rely on. Dr. Clarkson and his staff has been caring for my cats for almost 14 years. They are always informed about new methods and treatments, adding to their already excellent standards of care. I'm glad to see Dr. Clarkson quoted in this article as I think he has set a high standard with regard to compassionate pain management for his patients as my own pets will tell you.


Fri, Apr 22, 2011 : 3:05 a.m.

That picture is so telling , I had a dog that progressed through her final years and days with the white on the face very similar to that. Yet, I had another one that went through his final days and you couldn't even find a white hair on his body at 14 years old. Our pets are very lucky in the fact that we can help them with their suffering and bring an end to it. I have agonized over watching people go through this for far to long, but then I can recognize when it has been to much for fido and put them in a better place.

Linda Diane Feldt

Fri, Apr 22, 2011 : 2:08 a.m.

And the second "line of defense" is a great vet like Dr. Clarkson. He has been caring for my dogs for about 13 years. He is wise, perceptive, and has always been supportive of my ideas and choices in caring for my Rhodesian Ridgebacks. Medications can be a wonderful relief for animals. Massage, acupuncture, homeopathics, herbs and other kinds of bodywork can also be helpful, or even used with meds. It is great to have so many options available locally.