Recognizing Pain in Dogs

Unfortunately, dogs can’t speak. And while the medical management of pain has drastically improved over the last decade, before treatment can be started, one needs to recognize their dog may be in pain or discomfort, which isn’t always easy as they instinctively hide it. To help identify pain in your dog, it’s useful to understand the difference between acute and chronic pain, because while both can have the same symptoms, some signals are more commonly seen in chronic or acute pain. Furthermore, knowing the different types of signals of pain will help identifying it in the early stages. 

Acute and Chronic Pain

Acute pain has a sudden onset and typically has only been present for a short amount of time. Acute pain is most often seen after an injury, surgery, or sudden illness, and has the function of protecting the area of the body that needs healing.. A dog that is experiencing acute pain often shows clearer signals than those in chronic pain, such as sudden limping, or sudden increased vocalisation such as yelping. Acute pain can turn chronic, depending on the underlying reason.

The signals of chronic pain are often less obvious than those of acute pain, but can cause severe stress to your dog, and impact their quality of life. Due to symptoms often starting out very subtle, it’s not uncommon for dogs to have to tolerate it long term because an owner doesn’t recognize the early signs. Chronic pain is constant, and without proper management will  progress overtime. 

An example of chronic pain that gets misjudged by owners is Chronic pain seen in older dogs. Senior dogs getting stiffer, not wanting to walk as much, or having trouble getting up, often gets attributed to the natural slowing down because of their age, while it may indicate they are experiencing chronic pain such as seen with arthritis, which is the leading cause of chronic pain in senior dogs.

Another common example are dental issues, which often only get detected by owners when they are far progressed, and show serious symptoms such as refusing to eat. 

Changes in mobility

One of the more obvious signs that a dog may be in pain, are changes in their mobility. Changes in mobility can happen suddenly, for example when a dog starts limping, or happen gradually, for example when they have more trouble getting up overtime.

 A few signs of changes in mobility that may indicate pain or discomfort are:

  • Refusing to walk, or walking slower and stiffer than normal
  • Refusing or reluctant to squat 
  • Difficulty getting up or laying down.
  • Limping
  • Reluctance to make a jumping motion, for example not wanting to jump on the sofa or bed, or not wanting to go up the stairs.
dog-at-vet

Physical Signs

The way a dog carries its body can say alot about their well-being. There are some common physical signs dogs may display when in pain or discomfort. These are:

  • Trembling
  • Shaking
  • Holding the head low
  • Holding the tail low
  • Having the back arched
  • Twitching muscles
  • Panting while in rest
  • Flattened ears
  • Having large pupils and/or glazed wide-eyed look
  • Grimacing

Behavioural changes

While one may think that sudden behaviour changes require a visit by a dog behaviourist, a vet visit should be planned alongside this. It’s not uncommon for dogs that are feeling discomfort or pain to have sudden behaviour changes, and a thorough exam should be done to rule out any medical issues.

Common changes in behaviour seen when dogs are in pain are:

  • Change in sleeping habits
  • Change in eating habits
  • Increased vocalisation, such as yelping, groaning, whining, howling, or grunting.
  • Self-mutilation such as excessive licking, biting, or scratching.
  • Restlessness
  • Aggression
  • Not wanting to be touched, sudden snapping,
  • Being grumpy
  • House Soiling
  • Seeking more attention than normal
  • Sudden hiding

Treatment

If you suspect your dog is in pain, this should always be further investigated by a vet. They will investigate to determine the underlying cause of the pain, and treat this when possible. The veterinarian can also subscribe to adequate pain medication for your dog at the right dosage. Never give your dog pain medication meant for humans, as some human pain relief medication is toxic to dogs.

Conclusion

To give our dogs the care they require, we need to be able to recognize the signals of pain they send us. Especially when pain is chronic, these signals can be subtle, and to prevent unnecessary stress and suffering one should investigate further when they notice any physical change in posture, mobility, or behaviour.


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