Identifying pain in older patients

We often get asked how to tell if our pet is in pain, and it can often be difficult to recognise.  There are also some quite significant differences in the way our young pets will show pain compared to our older pets.

Coming into winter is an especially important time to be on the lookout for signs of pain in older pets.  Below are some things to consider and look out for to help you identify pain in your aged pet, and some of the things we can help them out with to let them live out their later years comfortably.

Pre-existing conditions:

Any painful condition that your pet already has, for example arthritis, may cause other painful stimuli to be worse than they should be.  This is because the pain pathways have been ‘primed’ by the constant stimulation from the arthritis (or other condition), and are already activated before the new painful stimulus.  Some animals hide their pain very well, and others will vocalise their pain.  If your pet has a chronic painful condition, be aware that small things are more likely to hurt them.  See our articles for dogs and cats for more information on arthritis.

Anxiety in old pets:

Our pets are like people in many ways.  Young pets are much more likely to vocalise their pain than older pets are, much in the same way that children will cry out.

Anxiety can also cause vocalisation, and tends to be more common in older rather than younger patients.  Deaf and/or blind patients may also have increased anxiety, and often vocalise out of nervousness.  This can sometimes be mistaken for pain.  If vocalisation does not improve with pain medication (or worsens with it), anxiety may be the problem and the pet may benefit more from anti-anxiety medication rather than pain medication.  Differentiation between these problems will involve a thorough discussion with your vet about behaviours at home and the differences that any medications make to these behaviours.

Comfort level:

Most older animals suffer from arthritis (see our articles on arthritis in dogs and cats), and should continuously be monitored for how comfortable they are when they get up and down.  If your pet is continuously rearranging itself on it’s bed rather than staying still and sleeping, it is likely feeling a degree of discomfort.  We can help this discomfort with our pain management techniques, where sometimes a combination of medications and dietary supplements are used.  Other things such as massage, warm packs and gentle physio may also provide some comfort.

Body language:

Body language is a great way to identify the more subtle signs of pain.  Your assessment of your pet’s body language at home is so valuable in this scenario.  Things to look out for are pinned back ears, or being rigid rather than relaxed.  If your pet suddenly avoids eye contact with you, this can also indicate pain, fear or nervousness.

Cats are challenging!

Cats are a challenge when considering pain, because they are much less likely to show us the obvious signs of pain that we see in dogs.  Cats tend to hide when they are uncomfortable, so we are much less likely to recognise that anything is wrong.  The personality of the particular cat is also important to consider – a cuddly cat that is suddenly hiding, or a reserved cat that is suddenly around more often can indicate that something is not right, and the cat may in fact be in pain.

It is important to recognise that over 90% of cats over the age of 12 years old have evidence of arthritis on x-rays, which is often not recognised by owners or vets.  If you are concerned, it is often better to err on the side of caution, and even trial some pain medication to see if it makes a difference to your cat.


Rest is so important.  It is important for all healing and recovery from illness, and aged pets require more rest than young ones.  If your aged pet is resting, especially if unwell, do not disturb them and let them rest.  There have been many studies showing a correlation between less pain and good rest contributing to a faster recovery from illness, injury or surgery.

Our pets are living longer and longer, and their quality of life is improving with the care that you and the veterinary industry are able to give them.  It is important for us as pet owners and veterinarians to recognise the more subtle signs of pain these oldies give us, and to act on them to ensure they receive the best possible care to live out their later years in the most comfortable way they can.

Please contact the clinic for a consultation if you feel your pet is showing signs of pain, or if you would like further information on this subject.  There are also other articles on this website relating to aged pets, so feel free to have a read of these as well.

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