Two rabbits

Recognising Signs of Pain in Animals

Important knowledge for pet owners


Animals often hide pain, and being able to recognise signs of pain in animals is an essential aspect of responsible animal husbandry. Pain reduces an animal's quality of life and will have far-reaching negative consequences if it is not properly addressed, ultimately shortening the animal's life.  

Criteria for the importance of pain perception  

Animals hide pain 

Hiding pain is a beneficial evolutionary trait that animals have developed over millennia. It enhances the chances of not being caught by predators, and thus improves the chance of survival. Domestication may have changed animals over time, but pets have preserved this trait to some extent.  

Animals do not express their pain as humans do

While they can clearly express acute pain by vocalising, animals express chronic pain only subtly, mainly through behavioural changes. Dogs and cats, for instance, might engage in abnormal behaviours such as constant licking or excessive cleaning. Unfortunately, some signs of pain are also misinterpreted by pet owners. A slowed movement or laborious standing are often attributed to old age, but may actually indicate an underlying medical condition.  

Responsibility of the animal owner 

Pet owners must therefore be proficient in identifying signs of pain to ensure that the underlying condition is addressed as soon as possible. Observe your pet and identify what makes up its normal behavioural repertoire. Pay attention to any changes in eating, sleeping and activity patterns throughout the day. When changes occur, focus on them and contact the veterinarian as soon as possible.

Negative consequences of pain

  • weakened immune system (through stress)
  • reduced wound healing (due to a weak immune system)
  • muscle loss (through reduced movement)  
  • weight loss (due to loss of appetite)  
  • poor posture (due to weight shifts)  
  • dehydration (through reduced drinking) 
  • behavioural changes (e.g. increased aggression, depressive states)  

Signs to Identify Pain

Changes in posture 

  • Curved back
  • Limb elevation
  • Tucked abdomen
  • Unusual head posture
  • Bent posture

Changes in movement 

  • Lameness, limping
  • Difficulties in getting up
  • Reduced movement and activity
  • Stiff gait


Changes in general and social behaviour 

  • Increased aggression
  • Pronounced anxiety
  • Unusually quiet behaviour
  • Displaying less joy/affection towards owner
  • Seclusion
  • Screaming, whimpering, whining, or growling without apparent reason
  • Lethargy
  • Neglect of coat care
  • Excessive licking and nibbling in one place
  • Concealment
  • Restlessness
  • Deviations from normal sleep patterns
  • Aversion to lifting
  • Unusual panting


Changes in eating and drinking behaviour 

  • Reduced appetite
  • Refusal to eat and/or drink


Changes in appearance 

  • Changed shine of the eyes
  • Changed facial expressions
  • Dilated pupils
  • Dull, unkempt fur
  • Emaciation
  • Dehydration

Trust your instincts 

Icon human with dog

Pet owners know their much-loved animals. If you notice that something is not right with your pet, without being able to say exactly what it is, take them immediately to the veterinarian. Do not simply assume that 'it will be all right'. 

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