If you were to ask the average pet owner how they would know if their furry friend was feeling sick or in pain, they might not be able to tell you. Some pet owners might provide more obvious answers, like seeing a change in their stool or noticing their pet is limping, but if not for those signs, they might not be able to tell. It’s no wonder that so many pet illnesses fly under the radar until an annual exam or a significant disease progresses with more easily identified symptoms.
If you resonate with this, you shouldn’t feel guilty. Missing the signs of pet illness is quite common! Detecting an illness or injury in a pet is a very difficult thing to do for multiple reasons. While we are used to detecting symptoms of illness in ourselves or hearing others describe their symptoms, pets can’t communicate in the same ways we do, which makes it difficult to understand how they are feeling.
For a while, some pet owners and vets actually believed that cats and dogs did not feel pain in the same ways that humans do. However, over time, veterinary experts discovered that pets do, in fact, feel pain—they’re just better at hiding it. But why do pets do this, and are there easier ways of figuring out when your pet is sick or in pain so you can get them help?
Why do pets hide their pain?
One of the main reasons it is so difficult to know when your cat or dog is feeling under the weather is because pets actually make a point to hide their pain from other animals and humans.
Pets hide their pain to not seem weak. This behavior is derived from an evolutionary instinct where the weakest wild animal could get left behind—or worse—eaten. In the wild, animals that showed signs of pain or illness might be perceived by natural predators as weak or vulnerable—essentially, as easy prey. Masking pain was a simple survival instinct designed to keep cats and dogs alive as they healed.
Cats are generally more notorious when it comes to masking their pain. Cats in the wild often traveled alone and didn’t have a large pack to help out when they got sick. However, even though wild dogs traveled in packs, they still learned to hide injuries to evade predators and to not get left behind.
Now that pets are largely domesticated, they still use many of the same behavioral instincts as they did when they navigated through the wild. Unfortunately, this is to their detriment—not benefit—since it makes it harder for their owners to seek help quickly.
Other issues with detecting pet health problems
There are also other factors at play when it comes to pets and pain or sickness. For one, cats and dogs just don’t speak our language. They can’t say, “Mom and Dad, I don’t feel well!”
Because cats and dogs can’t use words to tell us they are feeling sick or hurt, we must rely on their languages—usually sounds, body language and behavior—to pick up on their cues. For a new pet owner, this can be extremely challenging.
Additionally, pet owners may think that their furry friend will howl, whine or bark more if something is wrong, but this isn’t always the case. In fact, many pets retract from social situations and hide more quietly than usual when they’re feeling sick.
Another problem with pet pain is that the symptoms of many different health problems can manifest in the same ways. A cat experiencing mild digestive upset might avoid his dinner, but so might a cat experiencing an advanced stage of cancer. Pet parents might attribute symptoms to a less-serious issue, waiting for more serious symptoms to appear, and delay in going to the vet for this reason. In reality, severe symptoms often indicate a significantly progressed illness that might have been caught much earlier.
Key takeaway: Be an observant pet owner
Because pets do such a good job of hiding their illnesses and injuries, their health problems could go unaddressed for a long time. So, what is a pet owner to do in order to ensure their furry friend gets the help they need?
Most importantly, you should be an observant pet owner. This means keeping a close eye on your pet’s behaviors, vocalizations, routines and temperament. Every pet is different, so you’ll want to learn what your pet’s “normal” is, in every sense of the word. This way, you’ll be able to detect even slight changes right away.
Most pets experience behavioral changes when they are sick, including hiding or acting more aggressive than usual. If you notice these types of changes in your pet, don’t brush them off. Keep a close eye on other routines, behaviors and symptoms and contact your vet if anything seems amiss.
A routine veterinary exam could show that your pet is suffering from a hidden health problem. It’s much better to be safe than sorry when it comes to your pet’s health!