Unfortunately, your dog can’t tell you when he is in pain. Sometimes it is obvious, as the cause of pain is apparent, such as an open wound. Or, localized pain in a limb results in obvious favoring of the affected leg. But other times, the injury or cause is not apparent. Also, some dogs show obvious signs of discomfort when in pain, while others are more vague in displaying their distress or may hide it. Pet parents may need to play detective to understand when their dog is exhibiting signs of discomfort and assess possible causes. If your dog is experiencing pain, significant injuries, or disorders, veterinary attention to assess the cause and the pain is required. Read on for more information on how to determine if your dog is in pain.
Communication is Key
Unlike humans, who can explain what they are feeling, your dog relies on you to understand their nonverbal communication. Dogs in pain communicate discomfort in several ways:
- Dogs who are in pain may exhibit behavioral changes. They may become aggressive and try to bite when they are approached or handled, and especially when the area causing them pain is touched or manipulated. Even a dog that is not prone to biting can become aggressive when they are in pain, so exercise caution. When handling a dog in pain, you may need to muzzle the dog to ensure that you, or others, are not bitten. Pain may also cause your dog to become anxious or agitated, they may be restless, or seek attention.
- Dogs in pain may have trouble sleeping, have disturbed sleeping, or startle easily.
- Dogs experiencing pain may vocalize by whining, yelping, howling, whimpering, growling, snarling or barking.
- Your dog may excessively groom, lick, or chew an area of their body that is experiencing pain, in an effort to relieve the pain. They may rub their eyes if experiencing eye pain, or scratch at ears, if their ears are bothering them.
- Breathing may become faster, and panting may be apparent, as pain causes the respiratory rate to increase. Your dog's heart rate may also increase, especially when the area causing pain is touched or manipulated. It is important to know what your dog's normal heart rate is, so that if they are experiencing distress, you can recognize when their heart rate is increased.
- A dog that is in pain often will not eat or drink as much as normal, or at all. If the dog is experiencing pain in the oral cavity or digestive system, this is especially true. A dog that is in pain may also be nauseous and may drool or vomit.
- Like you, your dog will avoid putting weight on an injured limb, and limping or changes in gait will be apparent when a limb is injured and hurting. Also, a dog in pain will move to put themselves in a position to relieve pain. If abdominal pain is present, they may feel relief when stretching out, and may put front legs on the ground with their bottoms in the air, or may be constantly changing positions to try to find a more comfortable one. Dogs in pain may avoid movement as much as possible. Dogs experiencing muscle or joint pain may avoid stairs or jumping up on furniture.
- Dogs in pain may avoid movement to avoid pain in the affected part of their body, but a change in energy level may also be apparent. A lethargic dog not only does not move as much, their entire demeanor is different--ears may sag, their responses are depressed, and attention to stimuli is dulled. You may notice their tail droop or tuck between their legs, which can also be a sign of distress and discomfort. They may also withdraw and avoid interacting with family members or other pets.
- When pain is present somewhere in the body, your dog's pupils may dilate. If there is pain in your dog’s eye, specifically, your dog may squint, and pupils may be either dilated or constricted.
- A dog experiencing pain may have difficulty urinating or defecating, if this causes pain, or may start having “accidents,” if moving hurts and they are too late getting to the door, or disorder interferes with their ability to control their bladder or bowels.
- Swelling or inflammation on your dog's body are usually indications that the dog is experiencing pain.
Although some causes of pain are obvious, many are not readily apparent. Internal causes of pain such as cancer, kidney stones, bladder stones, infection or inflammation, pancreatitis, arthritis, joint, spine or muscular problems, and inner ear infections, may not be readily apparent, and the first signs of these conditions may be symptoms of pain in your dog. Your dog should see a veterinarian if they are exhibiting pain symptoms to assess what the underlying condition is and receive appropriate treatment.
Do not administer human painkillers to your dog, as these can be toxic to dogs. If your dog needs medication to address pain symptoms, you should obtain veterinary advice.
Care and Caution
Dogs communicate that they are in pain to us through behavioral changes, changes in energy level, appetite, mobility, and mood. Be careful of aggression that can be exhibited when a dog is in pain-- even the most docile dog may lash out when they are hurting. Changes in heart rate and respiratory rate are also telltale signs of distress. Dogs experiencing significant pain, or pain that does not resolve shortly, need veterinary care to assess the cause of the pain, provide medical treatment, and possibly address pain with pet-appropriate pain relievers.