Most dogs instinctively hide their pain. This may have been a useful survival tool for dogs living in the wild who didn’t want to be seen as an easy target for predators. But it makes it even trickier for pet parents to know when their canine companion is uncomfortable.
Rest assured, however, that as an attentive and caring pet parent, you can detect even the most subtle signs that your dog is in pain—if you know what to look for. Read on to learn about common signs of pain in dogs, what steps to take if you suspect your dog is painful, and how to manage pain in dogs.
Do Dogs Feel Pain?
Dogs feel pain in the same way that humans do, and often for many of the same reasons. Common sources of pain in dogs include injuries like cuts and burns, infections like abscesses or ear infections, and chronic disease, like arthritis or dental disease. Dogs can also experience pain following surgical procedures. Essentially, anything that would cause pain to a human is also going to cause pain in dogs.
8 Signs a Dog Is in Pain
Pain in dogs is often detected by changes in behavioral and/or physical changes. Dogs in pain may display one or more of the following signs:
Whining and whimpering are commonly associated with pain in dogs. Dogs who experience a sudden, sharp pain will often let out a loud yelp. Other noises a painful dog might produce include howling, groaning, and grunting. Remember, just because your dog isn’t making any noise, does not mean that they aren’t painful.
Dogs in pain will often protect the painful area or their entire body if the pain is widespread. This looks like hiding, limping, or not putting weight on a limb. A painful dog may also try to protect an injured limb by lying on it or placing it in an abnormal position while sitting or lying down.
Reduced Activity Level
Painful dogs may be reluctant to go on walks or run and play like they normally do, so pet owners may notice a decline in their normal level of activity. In some cases, a dog in pain may refuse to move completely. They may have trouble settling down and appear restless, constantly getting up and down or walking in circles. Some dogs may shake and tremble, especially when encouraged to walk or move.
Reduction in Eating and Drinking
A dog in pain may be so distracted by their discomfort that they are less willing to eat. Depending on how uncomfortable they are, some dogs will completely refuse to eat anything. Painful dogs may also drink less for the same reason. Standing and walking to the food and water bowls could also be challenging for a dog in pain.
Changes in Daily Habits
A change in a dog’s daily habits could indicate that they are in pain or discomfort. One example is a dog who is well house trained suddenly having accidents in the house. Another sign of discomfort is a change in their usual sleep patterns. Additionally, if your dog normally rushes to the door when you come home but you’ve noticed that they aren’t greeting you as they normally do, that may also be a clue that they may be experiencing pain. Basically, if you notice an alteration in your dog’s daily routine, you should investigate, as they could be in pain or unwell.
Compulsive Licking or Chewing
Repeatedly licking, biting, chewing, or scratching at a specific body part is a hint that the area in question is problematic for that dog. For example, older dogs with arthritic joints may sit and lick at the skin over a painful joint in an attempt to soothe the internal ache. Unfortunately, some dogs will persistently lick, chew, bite, or scratch at an area until they’ve left a large wound, causing additional pain and discomfort.
Normally friendly and cheerful dogs may uncharacteristically display signs of aggression when they are in pain. The change in behavior is either because they are afraid you will touch the painful area, or because the pain is making them irritable. Alternatively, dogs who are normally aggressive might suddenly become docile and quiet when they would otherwise be barking.
Abnormal Facial Expression and Posture
Flattened ears, a grimacing mouth, and wide, dilated pupils are all indications of pain in a dog. Painful dogs may also assume a hunched posture with their tail tucked between their legs. It’s also common for uncomfortable dogs to pant excessively, even if they are in a cold room or haven’t been exercising.
Dog in Pain: Next Steps
If you suspect your dog is in pain, you should always take your dog to the veterinarian. Even if the source of the pain is transient, like a joint sprain, you will at least be able to take home pain relieving medications so that your dog does not unnecessarily suffer in silence. It is important to properly identify the source or origin of the pain so that it can be addressed before it worsens. Nobody is better able to do this than a trained and experienced veterinarian. Pet owners often misdiagnose the source of their dogs pain when they attempt to identify it themselves.
Until they can see a veterinarian, any dog displaying signs of pain should be put on rest to prevent worsening any potential injury or underlying disease process. Running, jumping, stairs, and unsupervised play should be stopped, and the pet should be limited to short leash walks only for the purpose of urinating and defecating. Provide your dog with soft, padded bedding, and a quiet, cool environment to help them rest and relax.
Never administer pain medications to your dog without consulting a veterinarian first. Most over-the-counter human pain medications are toxic to dogs. While low doses of aspirin may be tolerated by your dog, recent studies have suggested that it is a relatively ineffective pain medication in dogs, and likely to result in vomiting, diarrhea, or other adverse effects.
Additionally, you should not give your dog any leftover medications from a previous injury or illness without first speaking with your pet’s veterinarian. Certain drugs cannot be given at the same time, and your veterinarian may be unable to prescribe a more helpful medication for your dog if you gave another medication first.
How to Manage Pain in Dogs
Whether the source of your dog’s pain is acute, like an injury, or chronic, like arthritis, there are several approaches to pain management. Your veterinarian may require diagnostics, like imaging or blood testing to determine the source of your dog’s pain and develop the most effective treatment protocol. If possible, your dog’s source of pain will be completely eliminated by treating and curing the underlying cause. In the case that your dog’s source of pain cannot be cured, there are many treatments and modifications that can be made to ensure your dog has a good quality of life.
Depending on the source of your dog’s pain, your veterinarian may recommend pain relief medications, surgery, specialized splints/braces, physical therapy, laser therapy, regenerative treatments, hot or cold packs, acupuncture, chiropractic, supplements, or a combination thereof.
Once treatment is initiated for your dog, you should constantly assess their response and progress. Work with your veterinarian to tailor the treatment plan until it best meets the needs of you and your dog to achieve the best results.
Nobody likes to see their dog in pain, but thankfully, it can be well managed and even dogs with chronic pain can live long and happy lives.