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Is my dog in pain?

The essentials

  • Your dog can experience pain, even if they hide it well — Survival in the wild is based on not showing weakness, and that’s carried over to our world with pets. 
  • Clues your pup is in pain come down to 3 categories — Look for things outside of what’s normal for your dog. Signs may be physical, behavioral, or a combination of both. 
  • Keep a journal and see your vet — If you think your dog is in pain, you should see your veterinarian. To help them determine the cause, keep a journal leading up to your visit to document changes.

Dogs are often called man’s best friend — responding to our every move and mood. We try to return the favor, but dogs can be masters of the ‘tough guy’ routine. 

When your dog is as skilled at burying their pain as they are their bone, how can you make sure you don’t miss it? Here are clues to look for so that you can get your dog medical attention if they need it.

Physical signs of pain in dogs

One of the more obvious ways to determine if your dog is in pain is to look at changes in their body.

  • Changes in posture. Pay attention to whether your dog is arching their back, dragging their feet, or carrying their head in a different position, such as below their shoulders or tilted. 
  • Shaking, trembling, or panting excessively. While trembling may be normal for more fearful or shy dogs, you might want to look closer if it isn’t normal for your dog. Panting excessively when not in connection with exercise or heat is another clue. 
  • Decreased appetite or thirst. Skipping a meal or changes in drinking habits for a day or two is not uncommon, particularly for sensitive dogs. If 48 hours have passed and they haven’t returned to normal, it can be a sign that something else is going on.
  • Tense and/or twitching muscles. This can be a result of overexertion, neurological damage, or acute injury.
  • Limping. Walking with an uneven gait is a common sign that movement is painful. Watch your dog to see if the gait evens out after a few steps or is consistent. 
  • Moving slower or stiffer. If your dog normally runs after the ball, but now they aren’t, watch your dog. If you see this becoming a pattern or that your dog takes longer to get up and “warm up,” it may be time to see a vet. 
  • Difficulty changing positions. If you see your pup constantly shifting positions or choosing to avoid certain positions (like offering a ‘sit’ during training), this may be a sign that this movement or position is painful. 
  • Avoidance of exerting certain movements. This may look like your dog avoiding jumping up on the bed at night, jumping into the car, or going up or down the stairs when that’s their normal routine.

Behavioral signs of pain in dogs

You can also watch for behavior changes in your dog that could signify they’re hurting.

  • Changes in energy levels. Your dog goes from running zoomies around the lawn for 30 minutes to lying next to the door. 
  • Apathy and loss of interest. Your dog normally dances in circles at the word “walk,” but now they avoid you putting the leash on at all costs. Or, your dog ducks away when you reach to pet them or avoids you entirely. 
  • Excessive licking or biting at a particular area. A dog’s instinct is to soothe an area of their body that is in pain or uncomfortable by licking or chewing. This is similar to how humans rub a sore muscle. 
  • Aggression. Growling, snapping, and biting are all ways a dog says, “Get away from me.” It’s important to listen if your dog is communicating this to you.
  • Pacing. Walking back and forth in a repetitive manner may be a way that your dog copes if they can’t get comfortable. 
  • Showing signs of stress. Yawning, lip licking, head tucking, and putting their ears back are all signs that your pup is stressed about a situation. If your dog does this and it isn’t their normal reaction, it may be a sign of pain. 
  • Changes in sleep patterns. Dogs may sleep more to rest painful areas or sleep less if they can’t get comfortable. 
  • Housetraining accidents. Accidents in the house may occur if your dog is avoiding the full length of their potty walks or walking to their designated spot is too painful. 
  • Vocalizations. Yelping, whining, and whimpering are all noises your dog may make to communicate that something hurts.

How to help dogs when they are in pain

If you suspect your dog is in pain, it’s important to take action. Acute injuries or illnesses can get worse or become chronic if not treated promptly. In most circumstances, early diagnosis and intervention are the keys to quicker resolution. The first (and hardest) step is noticing. 

Here are the other steps you should take to get your dog back in tip-top shape: 

1. Make a vet appointment

First, make an appointment with your veterinarian as soon as possible. Vet offices are often busy, so they may not be able to see you right away.  If you think your dog is experiencing extreme pain, you should see the vet immediately. See if you can be worked in or go to an emergency vet if it’s after hours or on a holiday. 

Your vet will perform a physical exam and run diagnostic tests (such as bloodwork or X-rays) if necessary. They will also prescribe medication or give guidance on changes to help your dog heal faster — if they’re experiencing an acute injury — or keep them comfortable if the cause is chronic. 

2. Modify your dog’s activities

If you notice that your dog is behaving differently and showing signs of pain during certain parts of their routine, make changes to accommodate them and avoid pushing their boundaries. The last thing you want is to worsen or re-aggravate an injury. 

Modifying activities could be shortening walks or limiting running around during playtime. Some of these changes may be short-term until the injury is addressed, whereas others may be long-term for more chronic pain. 

Regardless of the underlying issue, enforced rest is a great start, as are calm leash walks and avoiding jumping and rough play until a diagnosis is made. 

3. Record symptoms

Dogs behave differently at the vet’s office. Additionally, what your vet sees of your dog in their office is just a snapshot of who they are and what they experience. That’s why it’s important to track what you’re seeing at home. 

It’s also helpful to look at what happened right before your dog started exhibiting signs of pain. Were they running or jumping? Was it after you touched their ears? Do they only limp after a long walk or a run in the yard? These are all clues that will help your vet determine the cause and severity of their pain. Ideally, you can use your cell phone to collect video footage! 

4. Follow your vet’s guidance (and do some digging of your own!) 

Your vet may give you multiple treatment options to explore, so don’t be afraid to ask questions for a better understanding of each one and how it will impact your dog. If the diagnosis and treatment seem extreme, it doesn’t hurt to get a second opinion. 

While researching what’s ailing your pup is often the first course of action, we recommend waiting until after you have a diagnosis and treatment options, as each case is different. Often, advice online is not medically or scientifically proven, which could ultimately be harmful to your pup.

The most important things to take into account when determining if your dog is in pain and if you should see the vet is 1) who your pup is as an individual and 2) if there are any changes to their normal behaviors or routine.

If you’re unsure or think it’s urgent, it’s a good idea to go to your vet for guidance. At the very least, they’ll be able to give you peace of mind. At most, they’ll be able to prescribe a treatment plan that can restore your dog to their previous puppy-like self!

Frequently asked questions

What are the common signs of pain in dogs?

Signs of pain may include physical symptoms such as limping or abnormal posture, behavioral symptoms such as aggression, avoidance, or excessive licking of an area, and mobility symptoms such as moving slower or not jumping on or off furniture.

How do I know if my senior dog is suffering?

Weight loss, lethargy, extreme behavioral changes, muscle twitching, and excessive panting or salivation are all signs that your dog may be experiencing significant pain, and it’s time to see a vet. Chronic pain signs are a type of suffering that should be resolved. 

I think my dog is in pain. Can I give them ibuprofen?

No, you can’t give your dog ibuprofen, Advil, or Tylenol. These medications are created for how humans process chemicals, and even one pill may be poisonous to your pup. Your vet will be able to prescribe the appropriate equivalent to help your dog.  

How do you comfort your dog when they’re in pain?

The best way to help your dog when they’re in pain is to make sure they are comfortable and that you listen to their needs. If they want to lay next to you, do that. If they want pets, do that. If they need to do a shorter walk than usual, do that. Don’t force it, as touching the painful area may exacerbate symptoms or cause your dog to show aggression to get you to stop. 

What is silent pain in dogs?

Silent pain refers to pain that is subtle and builds up over time or is chronic. This type of pain is generally associated with aging, such as muscle stiffness or weakness, nerve pain, and arthritis.