If your human child is feeling discomfort or pain, they’ll let you know immediately, and probably loudly. After all, they know that you can help make it better, and they might even get to stay home from school — or get out of stay-at-home school — if they’re feeling badly enough.
Our fur babies, though — not so much. This goes against their instincts because they don’t understand the idea that their pet parent can fix it. The normal pack dynamic would be for sick or injured dogs to be left behind. Meanwhile, an ill or injured cat can’t really hunt effectively and may fall victim to another cat invading its territory.
So, in your pet’s mind, their best approach to feeling pain or discomfort is to hide it at all costs. They can be pretty good at this, with the often sad result being that their people don’t catch on until it’s too late to fix things.
The good news, though, is that while they may try to hide their discomfort, there are tell-tale signs. If you watch for these, you can catch problems early and take care of them before they become life-threatening.
The common factor in all of these signs is “change.” Our pets like routine because it makes them feel secure, so if they’re the ones that break the routine, it should be a huge red flag.
Here are things to watch out for in particular:
1. Restlessness, aimlessness, or agitation
If your pet suddenly starts wandering around the house at random, stopping to stare through doorways, and then changing course and heading another direction, this could be a major sign of discomfort or other conditions, ranging from Cushing’s Disease to canine dementia.
In older dogs, getting up to wander at night could indicate pain or dementia, or just a need to go outside. And common to all dogs, anxiety might cause wandering, although that anxiety could be either entirely psychological or due to physical pain.
In any case, the first time you notice your dog doing this, see if they need to go out and do their business, then monitor them to see if the behavior continues immediately or repeats. If so, it’s time to visit the vet.
2. Difficulty getting up or down
So how can you tell if your dog or cat is having difficulty getting up or laying down? Dogs may circle the bed very slowly and not make a complete rotation or continue to circle much longer than usual, and they may skip scratching at their bed entirely, instead sitting very slowly before easing their front ends down. They may also sleep with their legs flat beneath them instead of rolling their hindquarters onto one hip.
Cats, on the other hand, may start circling excessively in the bed without kneading it. As with dogs, they are trying to find a comfortable position while avoiding that moment of “ouch” when they do lower themselves.
When getting up, your dog or cat may avoid stretching, and may take their time slowly walking out of their bed, pausing after each step.
They’ll exhibit the same behavior when laying down or getting up from the floor, and may be reluctant to jump up onto former favorite places.
While this is most likely due to joint pain or discomfort, it can also have other causes. Again, if it happens consistently over a few nights or regularly on-and-off over a longer time period, call your vet.
3. Lack of excitement or interest in favorite activities
This one may be hard to spot, depending on your pet’s energy levels. If you have a senior dog or cat who has already slowed down and mellowed out, then it may be a lot harder to tell if they’ve really lost interest or whether they’re just too tired right now.
In younger or more energetic pets, the difference can be striking. You get out the leash and announce “Walkies!” or you shake the kitty treats in the kitchen — and nothing. They don’t come running. They may come wandering eventually, but it won’t be with a wagging tail or happy mewing.
If they do come, it may be in a subdued manner, approaching slowly, possibly sulking. When this starts to happen, monitor the behavior and consult your vet if it continues for more than a couple of days.
The following signs of discomfort or pain are more severe and can indicate more urgent issues, especially if they come on abruptly.
1. Sudden snapping, growling, biting, or scratching
This one can be the most disturbing, especially when it happens with familiar humans. The most common scenario is that you pet your dog or cat while they’re unprepared or not looking at you, and they suddenly turn and growl, show their teeth, snap, or even bite or scratch.
This is one of the more urgent indicators of pain or discomfort, particularly if it happens if your pet sees you before you touch them.
Dogs may exhibit a particular behavior which occurs when instincts collide. In this case, they won’t openly show their teeth, but they’ll open their mouth slightly and rapidly click their teeth at you.
This happens because the pain instinct tells them, “Attack it!” while their recognition of you as their human tells them, “NO!”
Any of these things indicates that you’ve touched a major sore spot, and it’s time to go to the vet as soon as possible. It could be anything from a broken bone to a sprained limb to some sort of tumor, abscess, internal injury, or worse.
Do explain to your vet beforehand, though, that you’ve brought your pet in because of the biting/scratching thing. Since they’re most likely going to trigger the same reaction during the exam, they’ll need to take precautions first, like using a muzzle.
2. Unusual patterns of behavior
These include anything out of the ordinary that might not be attributable to something else, like a change in the household or schedule. For both dogs and cats, suddenly hiding, especially under a bed or in a closet, can be a big sign.
In the wild, when a dog knows that it’s dying, it will leave the pack and curl up in some secure spot, like the base of a tree or a natural hollow. Even if they’re not dying, the hiding instinct is strictly self-preservation and has nothing to do with you.
If there haven’t been fireworks or loud noises very recently and you find your pet hiding somewhere and not shaking, then they’re probably not feeling well.
Dogs may also suddenly start breathing rapidly and shallowly. If they haven’t just been exercising or outside on a hot day, then this may indicate a few things, like pain, a respiratory disorder, or heart disease.
If they’ve been outside and it’s hot, they may be experiencing the onset of heat stroke, in which case you should administer first aid. This involves bringing the dog to a cool, shaded area (inside the house if possible), and then pouring cool but not cold water over their head, stomach, and legs.
The bathtub is an ideal place to do this, not only because it’s meant to get wet, but the porcelain is already cool.
You can also use towels moistened with cool water to put on your dog, changing them frequently so they don’t become too warm. A fan can also help in the process, but make sure that your dog doesn’t start shivering. Once they seem stable, take them to the vet and consider it an emergency.
If it’s not heatstroke, and your pet has exhibited any of the signs in this section, have your vet check them out as soon as possible.
3. Huge decrease in appetite
This is one of the biggest giveaways and perhaps one of the most urgent signs that something is seriously wrong. Your dog or cat suddenly stops touching their food. This may come with or without diarrhea, vomiting, or excessive thirst.
If they start eating again after a day or so, then it was probably just some passing stomach upset. However, if they continue to not eat, try them first with some high value food or treats and see how they handle these.
If they turn these down as well, get them to the vet immediately, whether they have other symptoms or not. Eating is one of the most important things your pet does, at least from your pet’s point of view, and not eating is a red alert.
The importance of non-verbal communication
Unlike our human children, our fur babies can’t just come to us and say, “My tummy hurts,” or “I twisted my paw.” In fact, every instinct of theirs tells them to not let us know, because they don’t have the ability to understand that it would be a good thing to do so.
That is why it’s our job as pet parents to be ever vigilant and watch for the signs our pets will try to hide but which will let us know that they may need medical attention.
It can be a challenge but knowing what to look for and what to do when you spot it will help you to do your job as a pet parent to ensure your fur kid has a long and pawsitive life with you.
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