Dogs are very good at hiding pain. It’s an inherent trait because, in the wild, signs of dog pain are considered signs of weakness, making them a target for predators. And, even in the cushioned comfort of a loving home, a dog in pain will stoically try and conceal its discomfort. Luckily, there are some obvious tell-tale observations, and, being able to read them, offers great insight into how your dog is feeling.
How Dogs Communicate
The joy of having a wonderful human-animal bond with your pooch is that is you are able to communicate with one another. Dogs are very empathetic creatures and instinctively know when you’re feeling blue or experiencing physical pain and will come and cuddle, even lick your face. Similarly, that special connection allows you “read” your dog and understand that certain physical signs such as labored breathing, or, out of the ordinary behaviors like sudden aggression, along with typical mobility signs such as limping, are key indicators that all is not well and translate into differing levels of acute or chronic dog pain.
Two Kinds of Dog Pain
Acute pain usually comes on suddenly and is caused by something specific. It is sharp in quality.
“Common types of acute pain can be caused by injuries sustained by what we call weekend warrior injuries,” explains Dr. Sharon L. Campbell, DVM, MS, DACVIM, Medical Affairs Lead, Canine Chronic Pain for Zoetis Petcare. “When the dog is quite sedentary all week, or, for a couple of weeks, and then is taken out on a long hike, or to the park to play fetch, the sudden intense activity can cause the dog to pull a muscle or strain a ligament which can be painful and lead to lameness and other signs of pain.”
Acute pain goes away once the underlying cause has been treated.
Chronic pain is pain that is ongoing and usually lasts longer than six months. This type of pain can continue even after the injury or illness that caused it has healed or gone away.
Thus, prompt and effective treatment for any type of acute pain will decrease the onset of chronic pain.
“In addition, there are other conditions that produce dog pain signs that can lead to chronic pain, because they have not been addressed early, or are undertreated such as arthritis, and dental disease,” outlines Campbell.
She also highlights other conditions that may be recognized, but where the dog pain component is either not treated, or, not treated effectively such as:
- Ear and skin infections.
- Urinary tract infections.
- Inflammatory bowel diseases have only recently been added to the dog pain list based on reports from humans with this condition.
- Back problems, most commonly Intervertebral disk disease.
- Cancer-related pains.
20 Signs of Dog Pain
If you are seeing any of the following signs of dog pain for the first time, it’s a good idea to do a body scan with your hands in order to try and locate the prime discomfort zone. However, regularly doing a hands-on body check is also a really good idea to pick up on any lumps and bumps that could be concealed by fur.
Physical Signs of Dog Pain
These signs of pain in dogs are associated with acute pain and can also occur after a pet is recovering from surgery or some kind of painful procedure.
1. SHAKING AND TREMBLING
Typically seen with a known injury. But can also be pain related to kidney disease.
Further, body shakes and trembles can be signs of poisoning (often along with vomiting). This could mean that your dog got into food or plants that are poisonous to dogs and should see a veterinarian immediately.
2. ARCHED BACK AND A HUNCHED STANCE
A dog will arch, or hunch up to protect an injury. It’s also a common stance taken after surgery, indicating that the dog requires more pain medication.
3. PANTING OR LABORED BREATHING
Taking short rapid breaths, or labored breathing is a way to breathe without exacerbating pain. Panting can also be an indication of discomfort.
4. RIGID OR TWITCHING MUSCLES
Dogs may stiffen up a limb and try not to use it because movement is painful. Apart from surgery or an actual injury, stiffness or a dog stepping gingerly could be a sign of joint pain, dysplasia, or arthritis.
Swelling is one of the cardinal signs of trauma which also include redness, heat, and decreased function. Keep your eyes open for any new lumps and bumps on your dog.
Dogs in pain resist moving. This could be a reluctance to go for walks, climb stairs and even play games. However, this is also a common symptom if a dog has eaten something toxic.
Behavioral Signs of Dog Pain
They are related to both acute and chronic pain.
7. AVERSION TO TOUCH
This is a typical protective reaction to prevent further pain. For example, a dog with an ear infection will shy away from being touched even though he loves you and knows you are trying to help.
This is a fearful reaction to being hurt. In other words, feeling more pain. Flattened ears are a typical sign of aggression.
“Often, if a pet parent doesn’t recognize various signs of pain, and, continues to try to touch or interact with the pet, the aggression can escalate. Veterinarians refer to it as ‘ladder aggression’ which can eventually lead to outright aggressive behavior if the interaction is not stopped,” cautions Campbell.
9. ANTISOCIAL BEHAVIOR SUCH AS HIDING
Once again, this is a dog’s innate traits kicking in. In the wild, an injured dog will retreat to a safe area to be out of the away of danger while trying to heal. Antisocial behavior is a protective reaction.
10. LOSS OF APPETITE
Pain can affect the desire to eat.
11. DIFFICULTY EATING
This is most often seen with dental disease or an injury to the mouth. The dog may attempt to pick up the food, but be unable to chew because it’s painful.
12. EXCESSIVE LICKING AND GROOMING
This is a typical sign of joint pain or discomfort at a surgical site, and, even an indicator of inflammatory bowel disease. Dogs lick the painful area to self-soothe.
13. EXCESSIVE SLEEPING
Just like hiding, this is a protective response. Rest, as with people, allows an injury to heal. Less movement means less pain, particularly with regard to chronic conditions.
This is another typical pain sign when a dog cannot find a comfortable position to sit or lie down.
15. EXCESSIVE BARKING
Along with whining, whimpering, or crying out, barking is a way to call attention that the dog is uncomfortable or experiencing pain.
Mobility Signs of Pain
While the mobility signs below can be associated with acute pain injuries, they are also the most common signs associated with osteoarthritis.
16. LAMENESS OR LIMPING
This is a protective mechanism to avoid putting weight on an injured limb.
17. SLOWNESS AND DIFFICULTY WALKING
Movement equates to pain. Slow, deliberate movements minimize pain.
18. DIFFICULTY LYING DOWN AND GETTING UP
Again, slow movements help to minimize the pain.
19. INABILITY TO JUMP OR EXERCISE
If it hurts to jump or move, a pet will instinctively limit these activities.
20. TROUBLE NEGOTIATING STAIRS
Stair avoidance equates to self-protection.
When to Seek Veterinary Care
Any of the above signs of dog pain are indicators that something is wrong and warrant a proper veterinary diagnosis.
“If something happens out of the blue, that may be a clue to seek instant help. For example, sudden drooling, vomiting, and lethargy could be signs of poisoning and need a swift and urgent response,” suggests Campbell. “Similarly, any acute onset of lameness or reluctance to exercise, inability to do normal activities, call the veterinarian.”
Thanks to advances in technology, veterinary telemedicine may be a first option. However, because a limp can be so much more than a physical thorn in the foot, it’s not a good idea to let serious symptoms go unattended. Instead, set up an in-person diagnosis.
Pet parents are often slow to get veterinary help when the signs that a dog may be in pain are more gradual.
“Mobility issues are often regarded as ‘normal signs of aging’. Whereas, in fact, they are the foremost signs of very painful osteoarthritis in dogs,” explains Dr. Mike Petty DVM, Past-President, International Veterinary Academy of Pain Management and a Certified Veterinary Pain Practitioner.
“Disregarding these signs as normal aging is the primary reason why canine OA goes untreated. It’s a common misconception that osteoarthritis is an old dog disease,” he adds. “In dogs, OA is almost always secondary to genetic things like dysplasia and other joint abnormalities. Dogs as young as 18-24 months of age, can show signs of OA that will become an issue later in life,” he cautions.
Petty has been involved in trials for a drug called Librela, which he believes will usher in a new era in alleviating the pain caused by OA. Already available in Europe and the United Kingdom, Librela is a once-monthly injection. It is the first monoclonal antibody that will inhibit the nerve growth factor that causes osteoarthritis pain in dogs. It still has to get FDA approval for use in the USA. (The feline equivalent called Solensia already has FDA approval and will be available later this year.)
Making Changes Around the Home
If your dog is recovering from an injury or surgery, it’s a good idea to limit them to one area in the home so that they can recover and rest.
Ramps are a great idea to help pets access a special snooze zone like a couch or a bed. And there are also special harnesses that can aid standing up and even walking, and generally assist a dog’s general wellbeing,
The bottom line is if you see something, do something. Your smartphone is your best friend to record unusual whimpering sounds, and, of course, photographs and videos for reference.
Have you ever saved information on your phone to aid your veterinarian?
Your dog’s temperature is one of the five vital stats that we encourage you to monitor. Join us in our Pet Health 5 movement and together we can start tracking our pet’s health. It’s super easy! We’ll send you a reminder on the 5th of each month with a checklist of what to do and how to do it. All you need to do is take the time to check your dog’s health stats and log them.
Pet health and dog health is an important aspect of helping our dogs live long and happy lives. You can start today by checking your dog’s temperature and signing up for Pet Health 5.
About the Author: Sandy Robins is an award-winning multi-media pet lifestyle consultant, author, and industry spokesperson. Her focus is educating pet parents about the latest innovation and trends and the ways in which they improve a pet’s general health and well-being and, ultimately, enhance the human-animal bond. She’s authored four books including The Original Cat Bible and Fabulous Felines: Health and Beauty Secrets for the Pampered Cat, which was the first lifestyle book written for felines.
Sandy has appeared on all the major TV networks and worked with corporate American leaders such as American Airlines to promote safe airline travel, Motorola, launching the first pet video camera for pets, and with Toyota as a pet safety expert, traveling nationwide to promote pet safety in vehicles. She has lectured on international platforms in Asia and Europe about the human-animal bond.
On her blog Reigning Cats and Dogs, she introduced the Must-Have Stamp of Approval Award given to products that are indeed game-changers in the pet world and help to improve both the pet parent experience and the lifestyle of both cats and dogs.
Sandy lives in California with two very opinionated cats and a goofy dog who enjoy their jobs as product testers. She is also an auntie to every pet in the neighborhood.