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How to Tell If a Dog Is in Pain and What You Can Do to Help

No pet parent wants their dog to be in pain. But since they instinctively try to hide their pain and they can’t tell us when they are hurting, it’s up to us to recognize the subtle signs and to get them the help they need.

Many behaviors and physical changes can indicate that a dog is in pain. Learn how to recognize the signs of pain in dogs, what causes it, what you can do to help and how to discuss your concerns with your vet.

Signs a Dog Is in Pain

Dogs feel pain the same way we do, but they don’t always show it in the same way. A dog’s pain can become evident through physical symptoms, behavioral changes and/or mobility issues. These might be subtle, so stay vigilant and never be afraid to ask your vet about anything that might signal that your dog is in pain.

Physical Symptoms

When a dog is experiencing pain, you might notice slight physical changes or how they carry their body. Here are a few physical signs of pain in dogs:

  • Tight or twitching muscles

  • Shaking or trembling

  • Arched back

  • Holding their head below their shoulders

  • Panting

Behavioral Changes

A dog in pain tends to behave differently than usual. Just like us, dogs tend to be crankier when they are experiencing pain. Here are a few behavioral signs that might indicate that your pet is experiencing pain:

  • Not wanting to be touched

  • Excessive licking

  • Excessive vocalization

  • Restlessness

  • Aggression

Mobility Issues

If a dog has sustained an injury or is dealing with arthritis, you may notice changes in their mobility. Here are common signs of pain in dogs that affect their mobility:

  • Limping

  • Walking slower or refusing to walk

  • Reluctance to jump or use stairs

  • Reluctance or inability to lie down or get up

Some of these signs of pain can be seen with other serious medical or behavioral problems too, so always discuss changes in behavior or normal activity with your veterinarian.

What Causes Pain in Dogs?

There are two types of pain: acute and chronic. Something that just happened, like an injury or illness, causes acute pain. Things that have been going on longer, like arthritis or dental disease, cause chronic pain.

Anything that damages cells or creates inflammation can cause pain in dogs:

  • Damage to bones or joints 

  • Soft tissue injuries

  • Sprains/strains

  • Back problems

  • Dental disease

  • Ear, skin and urinary tract infections

  • Severe stomach upset

  • Some kinds of cancer

  • Surgeries

How to Help a Dog That’s in Pain

If you think your dog is suffering, don’t panic. There are a lot of different options and things you can do to help them start to feel better.

Here are some steps you can take to help your dog cope with pain and work towards relief.

Make an Appointment With Your Veterinarian

First, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian to figure out what the problem is.

Your veterinarian will need to run some diagnostic tests. In order to pinpoint the problem, your vet may need to do X-rays, blood tests or an ultrasound.

Stop or Modify Physical Activities With Your Pet

If your pet is showing signs of pain during an activity, avoid it until you can talk to your veterinarian.

Your veterinarian will be able to help you figure out how to best help your pet, whether it is stopping that activity altogether or establishing modifications that will minimize pain.

Simple pain-reducing modifications to common activities can include: taking shorter walks, using a ramp or steps, rolling the ball or tossing it shorter distances, and raising food/water dishes to a more comfortable height.

For some instances of acute pain, these changes might be temporary, but for some chronic pain conditions, they may be long-term.

Keep a Record of the Signs You’re Seeing

We’ve all been through the scenario where we see certain signs at home, but by the time we get to the vet, everything looks fine.

That’s why it can be helpful to take pictures or a video of your pet when they are showing signs of pain or discomfort. Write down when they occur and what your pet was doing at the time.

This helps your vet understand the scenarios in which your dog is experiencing pain as well as the types of symptoms and signs of pain they are displaying.

Having video and pictures of your dog can also help your veterinarian to make the proper modifications to your routine to help minimize the pain.

Explore All of the Treatment Options

There are many veterinary treatments that can eliminate or reduce both acute and chronic pain. Talk with your veterinarian to understand what your dog’s treatment options are.

The most common treatments for pain include:

  • Medications

  • Surgery

  • Physical rehabilitation

  • Laser therapy

  • Acupuncture

  • Chiropractic

  • Regenerative medicine

  • Massage

  • Supplements and herbal therapies

  • Ice or heat packs

Ask Questions and Don’t Be Afraid to Get a Second Opinion

Here are some questions you might ask your vet:

  • How will you manage your pet’s pain after a surgery?

  • How will a specific treatment help her pain?

  • Can a supplement help reduce pain?

  • What modifications can I make at home to help her?

  • What else we can do for her pain?

You can also always contact another general practitioner vet; integrative vet; veterinary pain practitioner; or veterinary specialist like a behaviorist, surgeon, oncologist or neurologist for a second opinion or additional treatment options.

Be Your Dog’s Advocate

Your dog depends on you to be her voice to get her the help she needs.

So if you think your dog is showing any signs of pain, including any changes in routine, preferences and behaviors, set up an appointment with your vet as soon as you can.

Even if the signs resolve, you’ll want to keep the appointment to be sure whatever was causing the pain does not become a long-term problem.

If your pet is injured, ill or showing multiple or severe signs of pain, don’t hesitate to take them into an emergency vet clinic to get their pain treated as soon as possible.

You are your dog’s best health advocate.

By: Dr. Aja Senestraro, DVM

Featured Image: iStock.com/xijian