Shelter Health

Recognizing an Animal's Pain

Recognizing and interpreting pain in animals is a challenging task in an animal’s home environment. The challenge is even greater in the stressful environment of an animal shelter.

Recognizing and treating pain in shelter animals is ethically the right thing to do. It is also the right thing to do for practical reasons. Pain compounds an animal’s stress. This is turn frequently leads to illness, which may result in that animal’s death or the illness and death of other animals.

The information and resources on this page will help you put together a protocol for assessing, documenting, and treating pain.

How Animals Show Signs of Pain

Animals are masters of adapting to and disguising their discomfort. It can be difficult to distinguish between an anxious animal, a sick animal, and an animal in pain.

Signs of pain are often indirect. Examples include:

  • Absence of normal behaviors, such as grooming or eating
  • Abnormal behaviors, such as vocalizing loudly, hiding or posturing abnormally
  • Changes in reactions to touch
  • Changes in physiologic parameters, such as high heart rates or temperature changes

The pain scale documents at right provide more detail and also some visual representations of cats and dogs in pain. These can be helpful in assessing the degree of pain an animal may be experiencing.

Responding to Pain Part 1: Call Your Vet

The best pain management plan addresses pain before it starts. If you are not sure whether an animal is in pain, it is probably best to assume the animal is in pain and begin treatment.

If you think an animal may be in pain:

  • Contact your shelter veterinarian to discuss what you have observed.
  • Follow through with and document the veterinarian’s instructions in the animal’s medical record.
  • Provide good nursing and, to the extent possible, a supportive environment to keep the animal comfortable.
  • Always monitor the animal’s response to determine whether treatment is effective.

Responding to Pain Part 2: Provide Good Nursing Care

Treating pain is more than merely administering drugs. Day-to-day care can also have a big impact on how the animal responds to treatment.

  • Maintaining good physical and emotional health are components of pain control. Appropriate nutrition, housing that is quiet and in which the animal feels secure, and a predictable schedule are examples of this.
  • Meeting animals' needs for environmental comforts is significant when animals have no ability to control this themselves. Good shelter basics, such as cleanliness, temperatures that are comfortable, comfortable bedding, and noise control are especially important to animals in pain.
  • Foster Care is frequently an excellent option for animals in pain. An experienced foster home may be able to provide the supportive environment and extra human attention needed to help the animal recover.

Related ASV Guidelines

For more information about pain management, refer to the following topics in the Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters:

  • Veterinary Relationship and Record Keeping
  • Emergency Medical Care​
  • Pain Management 

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