Is My Pet Suffering? An Exploration of Grimace Scales

Grimace scales are valuable tools that use facial expressions and body language to help assess pain and suffering in animals.

As pet parents, one of our primary concerns is ensuring the well-being and happiness of our beloved companions. However, since dogs and cats cannot communicate their feelings verbally, it can be challenging to determine if they are experiencing pain or suffering. So scientists and veterinarians developed tools called grimace scales, a non-verbal method for assessing pain in animals.

Understanding Grimace Scales

Grimace scales are observational tools that allow professionals to interpret an animal’s level of pain or distress. These scales are based on the understanding that animals in pain display certain facial expressions and body language. By carefully observing subtle changes, veterinarians can gain valuable insight into an animal’s well-being.

The Development of the Scales

Grimace scales began with research conducted on laboratory animals such as mice and rats. Scientists noticed that these animals showed specific facial expressions when they felt pain. From there, researchers created standardized scoring systems to measure facial changes and match them with the level of pain an animal is experiencing.

Over time, scientists expanded grimace scales to include some companion animals, including dogs, cats, rabbits, horses, and birds. Each species has its own unique set of facial features and body language that indicate pain or distress. Consequently, scientists developed different grimace scales for each species to ensure accurate assessment.

Interpreting Scores

Grimace scales typically consist of a series of facial action units (FAUs) or features. Veterinarians score animals based on the presence or intensity of the FAUs. These features may include changes in:

  • Ear position
  • Eye shape
  • Muzzle tension
  • Whisker position

Vets assign each feature a score, and the cumulative score provides an overall indication of the animal’s pain level.

It is important to note that grimace scales are not definitive diagnostic tools. Rather, they serve as a complementary method for assessing pain. They are most effective when used in with other clinical signs, such as changes in behavior, appetite, or mobility. Veterinarians consider a combination of factors to assess an animal’s well-being.

3 Benefits of Grimace Scales

  1. They provide a standardized, objective method for evaluating pain levels. This means assessments will be similar among different observers. This objectivity is crucial when comparing pain responses across individuals or species.
  2. Grimace scales can help identify pain in animals that try to hide how they feel. Dogs and cats often mask their pain to avoid appearing vulnerable. This can make it challenging for pet parents to recognize their suffering. By relying on facial expressions and body cues, grimace scales offer a more reliable means of detecting pain in such cases.
  3. Grimace scales help improve animal welfare through early detection and intervention. Identifying pain allows veterinarians an opportunity to discover the cause and choose a treatment course. This reduces suffering, hopefully before it becomes severe or chronic. Such a proactive approach enhances the overall quality of life for companion animals and strengthens their bond with pet parents.


Dr. Bethany Hsia, Co-founder of CodaPet

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