Signs of Pain in Dogs

Signs of Pain in Dogs

Posted by Lianne McLeod D.V.M. on

Signs of Pain in Dogs

Dogs, dubbed "man's best friend," are adored for their devotion and friendship. They provide us joy and comfort, and we want to make sure they have a happy and healthy life in return. However, dogs, like humans, can experience pain, and it’s crucial for pet owners to recognize the subtle signs of pain in their furry friends.

In this article, we will delve deeper into the signs of pain in dogs, common health issues that cause pain, and various treatment options. We will also go over the function of nutrition and exercise in pain management, as well as look into alternative therapies. Our goal is to arm pet owners with the knowledge they need to correctly identify and manage their dog's pain.

dog in pain

Understanding Pain in Dogs

Pain is a multifaceted physiological and psychological experience that affects the dog’s behavior. It's a sensory and emotional reaction to real or anticipated tissue damage. Pain in dogs can be caused by a variety of circumstances, including injury, illness, or a chronic condition such as arthritis.

There are two main types of pain that dogs can experience: acute and chronic.

chronic and acute pain

Acute pain is typically caused by a specific injury or trauma, such as a shattered bone or a burn. It is usually harsh and severe, yet it is only temporary. Acute discomfort normally goes away as the underlying cause is addressed.

On the other hand, chronic pain persists over a long period, often for months or even years. This type of pain typically results from conditions like arthritis, hip dysplasia, or cancer. Chronic pain can be intermittent, with periods of relief followed by flare-ups, or it can be constant. It is often less intense than acute pain, but its long-term nature can significantly impact a dog’s quality of life.

It’s important to remember that each dog is unique, and what indicates pain in one dog may not be the same in another. Therefore, knowing your dog’s normal behavior is crucial in identifying any changes that might indicate pain.

Physical Signs of Pain in Dogs

Physical signs are often the most noticeable indicator that a dog is experiencing pain. These signs can vary depending on the cause and severity of the pain, but there are several common physical pain symptoms that pet owners should be aware of.

signs of dogs in pain

Twitching Muscles

One of the physical signs that a dog may be in pain is twitching muscles or shaking.  This sign can be particularly noticeable in the legs. For example, a dog with an acute injury to a leg might exhibit twitching muscles shaking around the injury site. Similarly, a dog suffering from chronic pain due to arthritis might shake or tremble, particularly during movement or after physical activity.

Mobility Issues

Mobility issues are one of the most common signs of pain in dogs. A dog experiencing pain might have difficulty moving around, particularly when navigating stairs or jumping onto elevated surfaces. For instance, a dog with hip dysplasia, a common cause of chronic pain, might struggle to climb stairs or limp when walking.

Physical Changes

Physical changes can also indicate that a dog is in pain. These changes can include weight loss or gain, changes in the condition of the dog’s skin or coat, or swelling in certain areas of the body. For example, a dog with a urinary tract infection, which can cause acute pain, might show physical signs such as weight loss due to decreased appetite or swelling around the urinary tract.

Increased Heart Rate

An increased heart rate can be a sign of pain in dogs. When a dog is in pain, its body will often respond by increasing its heart rate.

increased heart rate

This sign is a part of the body’s natural response to pain and is similar to the way humans’ bodies respond to pain.

Behavioral Signs of Pain in Dogs

While physical signs are often the most noticeable indicators of pain in dogs, behavioral signs can be equally revealing. These signs can sometimes be more subtle, but they are crucial in understanding when a dog is experiencing discomfort. They include:

  1. Decreased Appetite: One of the most common behavioral signs of pain in dogs is a decreased appetite. Dogs in pain might eat less than usual or show less interest in food. For instance, a dog suffering from dental pain might avoid eating because it causes discomfort.

  2. Changes in Behavior: A normally active dog might become lethargic, or a typically calm dog might seem restless or agitated. For example, a dog with an acute injury might become unusually quiet and withdrawn, while a dog experiencing chronic pain from arthritis might become irritable or anxious.

sad dog
  1. Changes in Interaction: Dogs in pain might interact differently with their owners, other pets, or other dogs. Dogs tend to become more clingy, seeking comfort from their owners, or they might become more distant, preferring to be alone. For example, a dog with a painful skin condition might avoid being touched or petted.

Importance of Noticing These Changes in a Dog

Noticing these changes in a dog’s behavior and the physical signs of pain in dogs is crucial for pet owners. These changes can provide important clues about a dog’s health and well-being. Early detection of these signs can lead to earlier diagnosis and treatment of the underlying issue causing the pain, which can significantly improve the dog’s quality of life.

important alert

However, it’s important to remember that these signs are not definitive proof of pain. Other health issues can cause similar symptoms, and some dogs might not show any behavioral signs at all, particularly in the case of chronic pain. Therefore, if a pet owner notices any of these signs, it’s important to consult with a vet to determine the cause and appropriate treatment.

Common Health Issues That Cause Pain in Dogs

Dogs, like humans, can suffer from a variety of health issues that can cause pain. Some of these conditions are more common than others, and they can all significantly impact a dog’s quality of life. Here are some of the most common health issues that can cause pain in dogs:

  1. Arthritis: Arthritis is a chronic illness that causes joint inflammation and pain. It is more common in elderly dogs, but dogs of all ages can be affected. Arthritis in dogs can cause limping, difficulties moving, and behavioral changes such as increased hostility or decreased activity. Arthritis can have a substantial impact on a dog's quality of life, making it difficult for them to move around and participate in their normal activities.

  1. Urinary Tract Infections: These infections arise when bacteria enter the urinary tract and cause inflammation and pain. UTIs in dogs can cause frequent urine, difficulties peeing, and behavioral changes including increased restlessness or decreased hunger. If left untreated, UTIs can progress to more serious health problems, so seek veterinary care if you suspect your dog has one.

  2. Injuries: Injuries, whether they’re minor cuts and scrapes or more serious issues like broken bones, can cause acute pain in dogs. Symptoms of injuries in dogs can vary widely depending on the severity and location of the injury, but they often include visible wounds, limping, and changes in behavior such as increased aggression or decreased activity. Injuries can significantly impact a dog’s quality of life, and it’s important to seek veterinary care if your dog is injured.

How These Conditions Can Affect a Dog’s Quality of Life

These health issues can significantly impact a dog’s quality of life. Chronic conditions like arthritis can make it difficult for dogs to move around and enjoy their usual activities, while acute issues like UTIs and injuries can cause severe discomfort. However, with proper treatment and management, many of these conditions can be managed effectively, allowing dogs to live happy and comfortable lives.

Pain Management for Dogs

Pain management in dogs is a combination of medical treatment, lifestyle adjustments, and, in certain situations, complementary therapies. Pain management aims to alleviate suffering, improve the dog's quality of life, and address the underlying cause of the pain. The following are some common pain treatment techniques in detail.

dog in cast
  1. Medical Treatment: Medical treatment is typically the first line of defense when it comes to pain management in dogs. During this stage, medication such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), opioids, or other pain relievers may be utilized. Surgery may be necessary in some cases to treat the underlying source of the discomfort.

  2. Lifestyle Changes: Changes in lifestyle can also help dogs manage their discomfort. Dietary adjustments, frequent exercise, and weight control are examples of such changes. For instance, maintaining a healthy weight can reduce stress on the joints and help manage conditions like arthritis.

  3. Alternative Therapies: In addition to medical treatment and lifestyle changes, alternative therapies can also be beneficial in managing pain in dogs. This practice can include therapies such as acupuncture, massage, or hydrotherapy. These therapies can provide additional relief from pain and improve the dog’s overall well-being.

Role of the Vet in Determining the Best Treatment

The vet plays a crucial role in determining the best treatment for a dog in pain. They can diagnose the underlying issue causing the pain, recommend appropriate medical treatments, and provide guidance on lifestyle changes or alternative therapies. It’s important for pet owners to work closely with their vet to develop a comprehensive pain management plan for their dog.

Importance of Early Detection and Treatment

Early detection and treatment of pain in dogs are crucial. The sooner the pain is addressed, the better the chances of successfully managing the pain and improving the dog’s quality of life. Regular vet check-ups can help with the early detection of potential health issues that can cause pain. If a pet owner notices any physical or behavioral signs of pain in their dog, it’s important to consult with a vet as soon as possible.

The Role of Pet Owners in Managing a Dog’s Pain

As dog owners, we play an important part in reducing our dog's misery. Our actions have a big influence on our dog's comfort and quality of life. Here are some ways pet owners may make their dogs feel better:

  1. Regular Vet Check-ups: These examinations are critical for the early diagnosis and treatment of health conditions that might cause discomfort in dogs. The vet can monitor your dog's health, run required tests, and provide immunizations during these check-ups. If any health problems are discovered, the veterinarian can offer suitable treatment choices.

  2. Observing and Reporting Changes: Pet owners should be vigilant in observing their dogs for any physical symptoms or behavioral changes. If you notice any signs of pain, such as changes in appetite, behavior, or mobility, it’s important to report these changes to your vet as soon as possible. Early detection can lead to more effective treatment and improved quality of life for your dog.

  3. Providing a Comfortable Environment: Providing a comfortable and stress-free environment can also help reduce your dog’s pain. This step can include providing a comfortable bed, maintaining a quiet and calm environment, and ensuring your dog has plenty of opportunities for rest.

  4. Following the Vet Recommendations: Following your vet’s recommendations for treatment and care is crucial in managing your dog’s pain. This step can include administering prescribed medications, implementing dietary changes, or providing physical therapy.

Tips for Improving a Dog’s Quality of Life

Improving your dog’s quality of life can also help manage pain. Here are some tips:

  1. Provide a Balanced Diet: A well-balanced diet will enhance your dog's general health and aid in the management of illnesses such as arthritis.

  2. Regular Exercise: Regular exercise will help keep your dog's joints supple and weight under control, both of which can help lessen discomfort.

  3. Mental Stimulation: Interactive toys or puzzle feeders, for example, may keep your dog's intellect sharp and boost their general well-being.

  4. Affection and love: Never underestimate the power of love and affection. Spending quality time with your dog, touching and paying attention to them, may lift their spirits and make them feel loved and cared for.

Remember, as a pet owner, you know your dog best. If you notice any changes in your dog’s behavior or physical condition, it’s important to consult with a vet. With your love and care, and the right treatment, your dog can live a comfortable and happy life, even when dealing with pain.

1. Gruen ME, Lascelles BDX, Colleran E, Gottlieb A, Johnson J, Lotsikas P, Marcellin-Little D, Wright B. 2022 AAHA Pain Management Guidelines for Dogs and Cats. J Am Anim Hosp Assoc. 2022 Mar 1;58(2):55-76. doi: 10.5326/JAAHA-MS-7292. PMID: 35195712.

2. Gruen ME, White P, Hare B. Do dog breeds differ in pain sensitivity? Veterinarians and the public believe they do. PLoS One. 2020 Mar 17;15(3):e0230315. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0230315. PMID: 32182261; PMCID: PMC7077843.

3. Zibura AE, Salmon JH, Belda Lopez B, X Lascelles BD, Westermeyer HD. Glaucoma-associated pain results in mechanical sensitivity changes in dogs: A pilot study. Vet Ophthalmol. 2021 Mar;24 Suppl 1:116-124. doi: 10.1111/vop.12800. Epub 2020 Jul 1. PMID: 32608141.

4. Lascelles BDX, Brown DC, Conzemius MG, Gill M, Oshinsky ML, Sharkey M. Measurement of chronic pain in companion animals: Discussions from the Pain in Animals Workshop (PAW) 2017. Vet J. 2019 Aug;250:71-78. doi: 10.1016/j.tvjl.2019.07.001. Epub 2019 Jul 3. PMID: 31383423.

5. Epstein, M. E., Rodan, I., Griffenhagen, G., Kadrlik, J., Petty, M. C., Robertson, S. A., & Simpson, W. (2015). 2015 AAHA/AAFP Pain Management Guidelines for Dogs and Cats. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery.

6. Management Guidelines Task Force Members, A. P., Hellyer, P., Rodan, I., Brunt, J., Downing, R., Hagedorn, J. E., & Robertson, S. A. (2007). AAHA/AAFP pain management guidelines for dogs and cats. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery.

← Older Post Newer Post →

Leave a comment


Lianne McLeod, DVM, is a former writer for The Spruce Pets, contributing articles for 11 years. Before Dr. McLeod began writing about pet care, she worked several years in small animal practice. She has written extensively about the care and keeping of exotic pets and pet health care. She now researches water quality and chronic disease at the University of Saskatchewan. Lianne McLeod earned her Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine from the Western College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan. She also received a Bachelor of Science degree in biology from Simon Fraser University. She continued her education and received a Ph.D. in Epidemiology from the University of Saskatchewan. Now, she splits her time between her family, research and writing about pet health for all the animal lovers out there.

The Importance of Probiotics for Your Pet's Digestive Health

Lianne McLeod D.V.M.
By Lianne McLeod D.V.M.

Dr. Lianne McLeod explores how probiotics can impact your dog's digestive health and gut health.

Read more

The Difference Between Prebiotics and Probiotics for Dogs

Lianne McLeod D.V.M.
By Lianne McLeod D.V.M.

Dr. Lianne McLeod explores the use of prebiotics and probiotics for dogs.

Read more