7 min read

7 Signs Your Dog is in Pain [Vet Advice]


By Leslie Ingraham

Published: 09/01/2022, edited: 09/04/2022

Reviewed by a licensed veterinary professional: Dr. Linda Simon, MVB MRCVS

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It’s likely that your dog will experience some level of pain during their lives. The cause can be apparent, such as after a visible laceration or injured leg. Other times the reason is not so clear, and we have to put our detective hats on to find the origin. 

Dogs are adept at masking discomfort, a skill passed down from their wild ancestors who couldn’t afford to appear vulnerable, weak, or disabled if they wanted to survive. Humans may not recognize their dogs’ pain if their pups don’t want them to see it, so it’s important to know what to look for. 

How do dogs express pain? Canine clues can help us identify where the pain is and what’s causing it. That's where veterinary surgeon Linda Simon MVB, MRCVS, a member of Wag!’s team of licensed veterinarians, has come to the rescue with these 7 signs of pain in dogs to help us all pay attention to our pup's plight! Let's take a look!

Brindle dog leaning over the couch arm

Acting quiet or out of character

If your doggo is normally an active, affectionate cuddle-bug who can’t get enough playtime you’ll likely notice if they become quiet and less interested in exercising and playing. This is a common sign a dog is experiencing pain somewhere. 

Your fur baby may not react normally to attention when they’re hurting. They may lash out unexpectedly or move to another spot to avoid being touched, trying to keep their discomfort under wraps. Identifying the pain’s source is crucial so your fur baby can get some relief, and an appointment with your vet is called for. It’s important not to medicate the pup before going to the clinic as doing so may make it harder for the doc to identify the pain’s cause and location. 

Many conditions can cause pain in dogs, making them quiet, wary, and even aggressive. Here are some of them:

Treatment to alleviate your dog’s pain will vary according to the causative condition. Your veterinarian will likely respond to all or most painful conditions with pain medications like aspirin or other pain meds specifically formulated for use with dogs. The route used may be injection, oral, intravenous, or direct injection into a painful joint as in steroids for arthritis. Treatments may also include medications like antibiotics and immunosuppressant drugs, as well as targeted vitamins and minerals, or procedures such as surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, dentistry, splinting or casting, or even dietary changes. 

Small white and brown dog hiding under a couch - 7 Signs Your Dog is in Pain

Hiding away

Hiding away is another common sign of pain in dogs. Not only do they want to cloak their discomfort from the rest of the pack, but a dark closet or a space under the bed may also give them some cavelike, quiet solitude to endure it. Ancestral dogs often hung out in caves when they were unwell. As with changes in behavior or personality that can indicate the pup is suffering, hiding is another tactic they may use to avoid contact. 

Dogs who are hiding because of pain may not even be tempted out of their lair to eat or drink. Providing food and water wherever they are may help them stay fed and hydrated, preventing upset stomachs and dangerous dehydration.

If a dog who’s hurting needs to go outdoors, they may delay letting their parents know until they become desperate. They may even have an accident wherever they’re hiding. Anticipating their needs and gently urging them with lots of pats and soothing sounds might help them feel safe enough to go outside with you. You may need to temporarily provide pee pads inside if you can’t get them outside.

Some vets will make house calls if a pet is unwilling to be drawn out of hiding. They can make  a pup feel more physically comfortable, perhaps enough to be driven to the clinic for further assessment and treatment. 

Mastiff standing outside

Walking more slowly or stiffer than usual

Pain in the joints, muscles, or spine may cause your pup to alter their gait to minimize the discomfort. They may keep their joints stiff and unmoving to avoid pain from rubbing joints. Walking can also be affected by an infection or injury. Some of the conditions that may cause a dog to walk noticeably slow or stiff include:

Pain in the joints can be relieved by anti-inflammatory and muscle relaxant drugs, surgery, splints, rest, and ice. Injectable steroids are available to lessen pain by decreasing inflammation directly in the joint. 

Lyme disease, bacterial encephalitis, and other infections are treated with antibiotics. Trichinellosis and other parasitic conditions are treated primarily with anti-parasitic medication, steroids, and pain drugs. While bone cancer can be difficult to cure, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and pain medications may decrease cancer cell formation and increase the chances of at least temporary remission. 

Small Yorkshire Terrier laying down looking at food bowl

Eating slower or dropping food

Pain in the jaw, teeth, or soft tissues of a dog’s mouth may not be obvious. Severe oral pain doesn’t always prevent a dog from eating, but the signs they are in pain, including slower eating or dropping food, can alert their human that something is causing discomfort. Oral pain can be caused by:

Sore throats that make eating painful are swabbed to discover the cause, and the dog is given antibiotics if the sore throat is caused by infection. Traumatic injury in the mouth can be the result of an accidental tongue-bite, mucosal tears from chewing hard or sharp objects such as sticks or rawhide, or lacerations of the lips, inner cheeks, or gums. Jaw fractures will also make eating painful if not impossible. Cleaning and suturing of soft tissue wounds, jaw wiring, antibiotics, and anti-inflammatory medications can help relieve some of Fido’s discomfort. 

Regular dental visits can help diagnose and prevent mouth problems that cause pain in a dog. Decayed, loose, or broken teethcan be extracted, while soft tissue lesions and gingivitis are treated with antibiotics and soothing washes. Additionally for gingivitis, deep probing, planing, or surgery may be needed to fully rid the pup of the disease. Oral cancer can be treated with chemotherapy, surgical excision followed by pain medication, and antibiotics. Yeast infections in the mouth, or thrush, can be treated with anti-yeast medications such as ketoconazole, terbinafine, itraconazole or fluconazole, along with supportive management.

Investing in a good wellness plan can often cover the costs of routine dental visits to help catch or prevent problems before they get too painful for your pup. 

Big brown and white dog trying to fall asleep

Having trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep

Any pain may make it difficult for a pup to relax and fall into a restful sleep. The inability to sleep can cause less resilience to pain and make it more difficult to treat it successfully.

Insomnia and restlessness are often definitive signs your pup is hurting somewhere. Most of the time the pain is chronic, such as in degenerative disk disease, or arthritis. Acute pain that can disturb sleep includes:

  • Bladder infection or renal stones
  • Ear infections
  • Dental pain
  • Cancer anywhere in the body
  • Spinal stenosis
  • Joint, muscle or bone issues
  • Headache

Treatment for these types of pain is specific to the area where it arises. Passage, removal, or disintegration of renal and bladder stones offer relief, as do pain meds that are given orally, by injection, or intravenously. Infections are treated with antibiotics or fungicides. Many times the veterinarian may prescribe IV pain medication, anti-inflammatories, and anti-anxiety drugs. 

French Bulldog licking their paw

Constantly licking one spot

Dogs will typically lick themselves repeatedly for comfort when they’re in pain. A watchful pet parent will be able to identify the location for the veterinarian. Sometimes the area will show signs of skin breakdown, hair loss, and infection.

If you notice your dog continually licking, a vet visit is important to determine where the pain is to help diagnose and treat it. A few of the maladies that cause a pup to continuously lick a certain spot include:

  • Lupoid onychodystrophy which shows up painfully in the paws and nails
  • Abdominal pain caused by GI or genital difficulties (licking the under-tummy)
  • Arthritis found generally in the bones of the legs, neck, and back
  • Other foot and pad problems
  • Severe allergic reaction or generalised allergic skin disease

If allergies are suspected, testing and eliminations can help to narrow down the specific allergen, then corticosteroids other allergy medications and therapies to restore skin health can be prescribed. Pain management and symptom relief are the initial focus of any treatment plan once the condition has been identified. Most of the above conditions will benefit from the administration of a canine-specific pain reliever. Lupoid onychodystrophy may be treated with a mixture of fatty acids, vitamin E, niacinamide, antibiotics (tetracycline or pentoxifylline), and immunosuppressants (cyclosporine or prednisone). 

Older black and greying dog panting while laying outside

Panting excessively

Dogs who are panting while at rest may be in pain. The panting can be shallow and fast, or deep and punctuated by grunts or groans. With the exception of panting during birth, a dog who is repetitively panting for longer than 30 minutes, and is not hot or anxious, should be seen by a veterinarian to diagnose and treat the underlying condition.

Labored or prolonged panting may indicate other conditions that may cause pain, such as:

Poisons will typically be evacuated from the dog’s stomach using gastric lavage, and activated charcoal clears remaining toxins. 

Identifying an allergen and avoiding it will relieve the pain of hot spots and other irritated areas. 

Supportive care along with medications that kill adult and immature heartworms may cure the condition. Anemia that causes a dog to pant can be treated with blood products and the underlying cause would need to be addressed, and heatstroke may be treated with IV fluids, active cooling, and oxygen.

If any of the above signs indicative of pain are present in your dog, schedule a veterinary visit or chat with a veterinary professional right away to help discover the cause. Treating your pup at home with pain relievers may allow the underlying condition to worsen and jeopardize your doggo’s health and life.

You never know when an injury or condition will cause pain in your pup's life. But insuring your dog can help prevent the high vet care costs that may come with it. Start comparing insurance plans from leading insurers like Healthy Paws and Embrace today to save over $270 a year!

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