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When Pain Causes Dog Anxiety: 4 Common Symptoms

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Is your dog showing signs of stress? For many pet parents of more stoic dogs, stress can be one of the first indicators of physical discomfort or pain.

Think about it, when you feel bad you might avoid doing certain things, right?  Same is true of our dogs and, unfortunately, a large portion of our dogs do have underlying chronic pain issues. In fact, the American Veterinary Medical Association held a summit in 2001 to discuss the prevalence of pain in animals. According to the data presented, about 1/5 of dogs in America has osteoarthritis. That’s a lot of dogs who may try avoiding stairs, be reluctant to get in the car or display aggression at getting stepped on, and it’s only one condition.

With many other conditions that can cause pain in your pup, it’s a good idea to do a quick pain-check whenever you notice that your dog’s behaviors are changing.

HOW TO SPOT IT: What does pain look like in a dog?

One of the key ways to identify pain in your dog is to note if they are behaving differently or if their personality changes. “Signs will be more obvious to you (even when they are subtle) if you have a good idea of your dog’s ‘normal’,” says Dr. Nicholas in How Can I Tell If My Dog Is In Pain? Things to be mindful of include changes in how your dog walks, sleeps, and in their energy and appetite.

Remember: MANY DOGS HIDE PAIN. If your dog is injured, what do they usually do? One of my dogs has literally fallen down stairs and not made a sound, while the other starts to limp the second a toenail is a little too long.

There are other ways to “see” your dog’s pain. Dr. Nicholas brings up:

  • Biting
  • Panting or shallow breath
  • Quickened heart rate
  • Postural changes
  • Lethargy
  • Resting more
  • Swelling

The American Kennel Club also mentions irritability, barking, increase in the breathing rate, reluctance to move, and depression as signs as well.

THINGS TO CONSIDER: What does pain-based anxiety look like in dogs?

Okaw Vet Clinic’s website notes how closely pain and fear can appear. Harder still, some dogs will start to display fear because of pain. “If you have a dog or cat over the age of 7 who is acting fearful, or changing in behavior pain may be part of the problem. Not overt high level pain, but low level chronic pain.”

Four common fear-like displays we see in dogs who have pain are:

Avoiding car rides.
Dr. Jason Nicholas, BVetMed, warns pet parents that dogs who show signs of travel anxiety or motion sickness should be checked for “underlying medical issues that could be mimicking the signs of motion sickness and/or travel anxiety (e.g., pain from a slipped disc or arthritis, an inner or middle ear infection, or high blood pressure).” Read more in his article about car sickness in pets.

Avoiding or struggling with stairs.
Arthritic dogs who struggle with stiffness or pain may begin to avoid stairs. “Climbing stairs puts great strain on the back legs. Running down stairs severely strains the front legs,” writes Dr. William John Davies from Daisy Street Vets. He cautions though—“A determined pet will not give up trying to go upstairs just because it hurts!”

Being slow to approach something or “hanging” their head and tail.
“The body language of pain is very similar to the body language of fear,” notes Okaw Veterinary Clinic in Illinois.

Suddenly showing aggression or irritability: Dr. Karen Louis, DVM (aka Vet Chick,) writes, “when a dog is hurting constantly, he may be crabby, even snappy. This is particularly the case with children, who may want to pet the dog, or god forbid, sit on or jump on the dog, causing him even more pain.” She outlines other ways to tell if your dog is in pain too.

While this list isn’t exhaustive, it’s important to call the vet if you’re seeing these behaviors suddenly. You dog wants to please you, so most hide symptoms of pain until they’re unable to any longer. By the time you see it, they need some help.

FIRST STEPS TO TAKE: How can I help my dog?

1. Go to the vet.

Only a trained professional will be able to properly diagnose pain and/or anxiety. Make sure to talk about your pet’s age too.

2. Consider additional diagnostics they recommend to find underlying causes.

Some diseases may come with pain. “If your dog is diagnosed with any medical condition, it is always a good idea to ask your veterinarian if there is any pain component to the condition and, if so, what options there are for treating that pain,” Dr. Nicholas says. Some of these diseases include inflammation in a joint or pancreas, spinal problems such as a “slipped” disc, cancer and kidney stones.

3. If the anxiety persists after the pain is relieved, consider consulting a local trainer.

“When I speak to veterinarians and technicians about pain and anxiety I stress that it may not be clear which is the primary problem,” discusses the staff at Okaw Vet Clinic. “Unlike other anti-anxiety medications that may take weeks to show response, pain meds will show the benefit for both behavior and physical well-being within the first few doses,” she adds. If there isn’t progress, a trainer can help you build your dog’s confidence back up once the pain is gone.

Dog walking outside

HOW TO GET HELP: Questions to ask veterinary and behavior professionals

If you suspect or are unsure if your dog is in pain, it’s important to talk about it with your vet or seek out a certified dog behavior consultant.

You might ask your vet:

  1. My dog will [describe behavior] when [give context]. I think it means they’re in pain but I’m not sure. How can I be sure?
  2. [Dog’s name] used to [describe activity] but now they’re never excited to—they seem reluctant, even. Why is that?
  3. How can I help my dog manage pain?
  4. My pet is getting older and starting to slow down. How can I make them more comfortable through the aging process?


How to Tell if Your Dog is in Pain from the American Animal Hospital Association

Alternatives for Controlling Animal Pain from the American Veterinary Medical Association