Pain Doesn’t Always Look Like Pain


Think back to a time when you have been in pain. 

Now let’s get more specific: think back to a time when you have been in pain and you’ve tried not to show it. There are lots of reasons to not outwardly show that you’re in pain. Maybe you don’t trust that people around you will be empathetic if you show pain. Maybe you have coworkers who accuse you of faking it to get sympathy. Maybe you feel pressure to perform, and demonstrating pain might get in the way or disqualify you somehow. Maybe you’ve been taught that demonstrating pain is dramatic or weak or shameful. There are lots of reasons that we don’t want to let others know that we’re in pain.

One more thought exercise: think about a time when you develop a growing awareness that you’re in pain. Maybe you’ve been excited about something, and only as the adrenaline fades do you start to realize that something hurts. Or maybe it’s a weird, new, amorphous kind of pain that doesn’t feel familiar and isn’t something you can easily identify. You don’t feel good, but you can’t really articulate what exactly doesn’t feel good–or even what it feels like, for that matter.

Ok, so by now you’ve probably started to realize that pain is complicated. Pain isn’t always obvious–to ourselves or to others. And pain can look and feel like a lot of different things.


Non-humans aren’t humans…

Want an added layer of complexity? (Don’t say no! Hear me out!) Now let’s imagine how exponentially more complicated communicating and identifying pain can be across species. Up until now, this entire conversation has been happening between two humans. At least, that’s my assumption. (Feel free to let me know if you’re from another planet or dimension!)

We know that non-human animals experience pain, but we don’t know how they think about their pain. We can’t ask them about their perception of what pain means to them. What we do know is that pain is extremely complicated in all species, and it isn’t always as obvious as we’d like it to be.

This means that you’re not a bad pet owner if you missed recognizing a pain response. You aren’t neglecting your pet! This stuff is just hard sometimes.


…But we share a lot of commonalities

So why am I talking about pain in a blog about behavior? Let’s revisit those thought exercises about the times you’ve been in pain. Does being in pain change your behavior? Do you avoid activities you’d otherwise enjoy? Are you quieter? Louder? Crankier? More anxious? Less patient? More quick to judge or criticize or snap at someone? Less interested in being touched?

Are you picking up what I’m putting down?

In many cases, when we see a change in behavior – especially (though not always) when that change is sudden and has no obvious explanation – it indicates that pain is the culprit. And you simply cannot out-train pain. So, in those situations, if we want to change the behavior, we have to identify and treat (or at least manage) the pain.

We cannot expect our pets to handle their pain more gracefully than we handle ours.


Subtle signs of pain

Here’s the tricky part: how can we identify pain in our pets when it isn’t obvious? It doesn’t always look like limping or crying. This is the part that can be super tricky, but here are some of the common signs that an animal might be experiencing pain:

Loss of appetite

If your otherwise snackalicious pet has suddenly decided to turn up their nose at food, pain might be the culprit. We don’t always want to eat a lot when we’re hurting, either.

Twitching skin

If you’ve ever watched horses’ skin twitch when a fly lands on them, you know what I’m talking about here. If your pet’s skin starts twitching but there aren’t any flies present, that might be a pain response.

Trembling muscles

It’s totally normal for muscles to tremble after long physical exertion or when an animal is cold or scared, but if their muscles are trembling even when they’re at rest, it could be a sign of pain.

Sudden orientation towards a body part

If your pet suddenly swings their head around and stares at a specific body part, they might be experiencing an acute, sharp pain in that part of their body.

Sudden orientation towards your hand when you touch them

If your pet is mostly fine when you touch them, but suddenly orients towards your hand when you touch a specific part of their body, that might be an ouchie spot for them. This is especially true if they growl, snap, or bite.

Compulsively licking a body part

When I use the word “compulsive” here, I mean “to the point of self-harm.” There are lots of animals who like to lick themselves for long periods as a part of their self-soothing wind-down, and that’s totally ok! But if they’re licking so much that they’re losing hair in that area or even starting to damage their skin, that might be a sign of pain. It’s not always skin allergies, either! For example, licking their paws can be a sign of compressed vertebrae damaging nerves and causing root signature neuropathies. Or licking their belly can be a sign of some kind of GI distress.

Reduced range of motion

If your pet won’t raise their head above their shoulders, stop themselves before completing a full stretch, seem to walk and trot just fine but won’t break into a full run anymore, or otherwise don’t move their body to its fullest extent anymore–you guessed it, it could be pain.

And of course, as mentioned earlier, any sudden, inexplicable behavior change – especially an increase in avoidance and/or irritability – can in itself be an indication of pain.


So what do we do about it?

If you see any of these signals in your pet, the first step is to see your veterinarian. Be as specific as possible when describing what you’re seeing. Vets aren’t mind-readers, and there are a mountain of possibilities to sift through. So if you just say, “I think my pet is in pain,” that doesn’t give them a whole lot to go on. They can do a basic exam, but not a whole lot more than that. Telling them exactly what you’re seeing and when you’re seeing it lets them know what exactly they should be examining, and can help them to figure out what diagnostics to run.


Circling back is an option!

If your vet can’t find anything wrong, you can always get a second opinion, but also take care not to get too focused on the pain angle. We often see the pendulum swing from “Unaware That Pain Is A Possibility” to “Fixated On Pain As The Explanation”. 

A good behavior consultant will work with you even if your vet hasn’t been able to identify a medical cause for your pet’s behavior issues. In some cases, it isn’t physical pain after all, but a behavioral issue that manifests as pain. In other cases, as we work through enrichment and skill-building and systematically address some of the behavior issues, we’re able to better identify the medical component later on, and come back to the vet with more helpful information.

The important thing is to start by ruling out medical issues to the best of your and your vet’s abilities first, and if nothing comes from that, we can do the best we can with the information and resources we have to address the behavior issues in front of us. The thing about both physical and behavioral health is that it can be a journey, and that’s ok.


Now what? 

  • If you suspect that your pet is experiencing some pain, make an appointment with your vet to assess your pet. 
  • If you aren’t sure how to talk to your vet about what you’re seeing, check out this blog that helps you to organize and verbalize your observations, The Intersection Between Health and Behavior
  • If you are seeing some undesirable behavior and you don’t suspect pain, we’d love to join you and your pet on your behavior modification journey. You can get started here

Happy training,