No body likes the thought of their canine pals in pain. But just like our kids, accidents sometimes happen causing acute pain. Other times, an underlying condition can cause longer-term underlying pain, often described as chronic pain. It helps to look at these two types of pain separately, for the very simple reason one will be easier to identify in you pet than the other! So, how do you know if your dog is in pain?
Firstly, it helps if you know what is normal for your dog
For a long-time family pet, this may not be too hard. However, if you have a new puppy, adopted a new adult dog or even if you are dog sitting for a friend, it may not be so easy! But don’t fret, below I am going to take you through some of the common tell tale signs that will act as an indicator that a dog is in pain. And if in doubt, always take a trip to the vet if you suspect something is up but you can’t quite put your finger on it. Maybe they just look a little sad…
Dogs Don’t Have a Voice – not strictly true!
Yes, it’s true dogs don’t verbalize in the same way we do. But that doesn’t mean they won’t vocalize if in pain. Some dogs may whine or whimper with pain, but many experts believe that dogs have a high pain threshold than we do. But a bit like people, where some will go pale and complain at what others deem only slightly painful – some dogs are truly stoic, and it may be harder to tell if they are in pain.
Why do some dogs try and hide they are in pain?
We don’t need to look too far to get the answer to that one! It goes back to their wolf ancestors and it’s still the case in the wild animal kingdom today. An animal that shows any sign of weakness can make itself a target to predators, or sometimes their own species. For example, some animals may just leave behind herd members if they can’t keep up. So you can see why some animals will try and conceal any signs of pain for as long as they can. It’s survival at it’s purest and simplest.
So, let’s take a closer look at acute & chronic pain, and the signs you might see in your dog.
Acute Pain in Dogs
Acute pain is like to be sharp, severe and mainly occur in short bursts. Usually acute pain is in response to a particular action, and the following would be possible examples:
- yelping or whimpering when touched – for example, when placing a paw to the ground, when being picked up or petted in a particular spot. This is when to watch out, as dogs can bite when they are in acute pain. It’s also good to remember chronic pain can become acute with certain movements – for example, a dog with hip dysplasia may experience acute pain at the furthermost range of their join range, or if they twist or land heavily on that joint.
- trauma – an injury to the dog which has happened by force. whether blunt or sharp. For example, impact from a moving vehicle, or standing on a sharp object.
- ongoing and excessive vocalizations – if it’s not normal for a dog to bark, growl and make a lot of noise, then chances are they are experiencing some form of acute pain
- “worrying” at a certain body part – by this I mean taking an intense interest in a particular place on the body, and licking it constantly. This excessive grooming is a dog’s way of trying to self-care for a wound, and it’s very common around the paws. It could be an open cut from standing on something sharp, or a bruised bone, a split pad, or a sprain – which would all cause acute pain.
- limping – limited or zero weight bearing on a particular limb is a sign of acute pain. A dog may try and get around on 3 legs in this instance, or even lift the affected limb off the ground when at a standstill,
The common theme with all of these, is you will likely notice! But not so with chronic pain symptoms, especially if they develop slowly over time and your dog has learnt to live with them. i.e. that is the new norm for them – particularly the case in the stoic dogs I mentioned above!
Chronic Canine Pain
Let’s classify these into groups, to make it easier to understand.
Changes in Behavior
This is where you have an advantage if you know the dog well. You may notice these type of changes more quickly than with a dog your are more unfamiliar with.
- stiffness exhibited as a funny walking gait and more apparent when first waking up or after a period of stillness
- not wanting to go upstairs or jump around as usual – very, very common in large dogs with joint pain!
- not interested in the usual games or toys, or a reluctance to go out for a walk
other weird behaviors – these can range from a dog hiding away or acting shy, when normally they are not. It could also be the opposite, where a normally placid dog starts to show signs of aggression – it’s important to say this isn’t a sign of meanness if pain is a root cause, this is just their way of expressing it to you. It’s often as a result of frustration – just like humans get tetchy with a toothache or backache! Also, a dog may seek constant attention from you, as a way to try and let you know something isn’t right.
Changes in Sleeping Habits
When sleeping a dog in pain may lie completely flat on their side, instead of curling up. A dog in pain may sleep more, or less, than usual as well. A dog in pain will often be quite restless too, aseptically if the pain makes it difficult to get comfy. Common signs of this are circling on their bed or sleeping spot, lying down and then instantly getting up again.
If you think your dog may have painful joints, you could try getting a memory foam bed, or if they are diagnosed with any form of joint dysplasia a proper orthopedic bed may give them extra comfort and help relieve the pain.
Joint pain can also be helped through the use of supplements. The most effective ones contain glucosamine and chondroitin, which can really help the discomfort associated with joint pain.
Changes in Posture
- an arching back, or even crouching down on the front paws with the rear end in the air (some dogs do consider this a natural stretch). Either way, if you see your dog attempting weird yoga positions, something might be up as a result of chronic, underlying pain.
- hanging their head, or a normally perky tail becoming droopy
Loss of Appetite
If your dog is showing an unusual lack of interest in their food, which persists for a few days, it is definitely worth taking a trip to the vet as soon as you can. It’s not only a sign of chronic pain, but can be linked to a number of other medical conditions.
If they find it hard to eat because of a neck or spinal problem that makes it hard to bend, why not consider an elevated feeding system. Lifting your dog’s food and water off the ground can have multiple benefits, including aiding digestion and prevent gulping which can lead to bloat. Read about the full benefits here.
Changes to Breathing & Heart Rate
An animal in pain is likely to feel stressed, and can often result in increased respiratory and circulatory activity. For those non-medically minded, this simply means a faster rate of breathing and a higher pulse. It’s a normal immune response to whatever is causing the pain, and the body’s way of dealing with it.
This is likely to show as heavy panting, and be unrelated to a hot day or strenuous exercise. If your dog is breathing faster and shallower, it could be the breathing itself which is causing pain – for example, sore ribs or diaphragm issues.
The raised heart rate is a little harder to determine, but if you want to know how to do this, your vet can perhaps show you next time you are there.
The Eyes Say it All
It’s often said the eyes are the way into the soul, so it’s little wonder that they can also be a window into pain your dog is experiencing.
- Squinting can be a sign of pain – think of us when we wince. I think we also probably squint a bit!
- Smaller than normal pupils are a good indicator that a dog is experiencing pain in their actual eyes
- Dilated pupils can indicate pain elsewhere in the body
- Dull eyes can also be a sign your dog is in pain
Watch for signs during toilet stops
- Frequency of toilet stops – if this drastically increases (either for number ones or number twos), then there could be something afoot. A urinary or bladder infection will increase their need to pee, and is painful!
- Texture of stools – a change to constipation or diarrhea could both be as a result of an underlying condition that is also causing chronic pain. Another one for the vet to definitely check out – as there are serious conditions that can be related.
- What about their posture when they go to the toilet? A change in the way they stand or squat can be as a result of pain too. Once again, this can be common in dogs with hip dysplasia – they find it very hard to squat in one position. Our German Shepherd used to constantly move around while pooping, as it was painful for him to hold the squat in one position. We used to call it “helicopter poops” as they would end up in wide circles. 🙂
Changes in the contours of their body
It’s good practice to regularly run your hands over and around your dog’s body. A double advantage – if there’s nothing to be found, they will love the attention, and if there is something there that’s abnormal, it allows you to get onto it quickly.
I would advise about once a month as a good frequency. Running your hands over their body will let you see if there are any unusual swellings, lumps and bumps or if there is anything that is sore.
A gentle but firm pressure is good, and remember to pick up the paws and feel in between toes, claws and around the pads. It’s a common area to injure!
What are Some of the Conditions that Cause Pain in Dogs
This is by no means a complete list, but it does list some of the common conditions that would give dogs pain – acute, chronic or a combination of both:
- Stones in the kidneys or bladder – just like humans, dogs can also get these too. A build up of urea lead to the formation of crystals, which are very painful to pass out in the urine
- Inflammation in the bladder – commonly referred to as cystitis, or as a result of a urinary infection, this can be very uncomfortable and will cause your dog to want to pee more – a lot more!
- Ear infections are very painful if they go on for a time, or travel down into the middle or inner ear canal.
- Joint inflammation – commonly in hips, elbows, knees and shoulders, especially with any joint dysplasia. (Orthopedic beds can help relieve pain)
- Ligament damage – like any acute injury, this will require rest and treatment to repair. Look out for this in incredibly active or bouncy dogs – think frisbee chasers!
- Slipped disc – this will be incredibly painful, and is likely to result in your dog’s back end giving way and needs immediate medical treatment.
- Tooth disease or fracture – as you can imagine this is one that will definitely result in lack of eating, not because there is no appetite but because it physically hurts to eat.
- Eye conditions – whether there’s a foreign body, an infection or just an irritation this is likely to give your dog grief and again needs medical treatment from a vet. Eyes are very delicate and precious features, and great care needs to be taken even to investigate the problem.
If you have anything you would like to add from your own experiences, then please do comment below. It’s all about gathering many experiences of dog owners everywhere, to help others identify the signs of pain in their dogs.
I would love to hear from you 🙂