Pain in Pets


Nobody wants to see their dog suffering and in pain.  

However, sometimes it can be very difficult to know for sure whether your dog is in pain.  Sometimes it’s a noticeable limp, large cut, or observed trauma, such as being struck by a car.  But other times your dog’s signs of pain can be far more subtle.

It’s at these times that people often need guidance on what to look for to know if their dog is in pain.

Signs That Could Indicate Pain in Dogs:  Some dogs can be quite stoic and do a good job of hiding their pain. But that’s not what we want for our dogs and there are many signs you can look for that might indicate your dog is experiencing pain.

Five Dog Pain Tips:

  • Although sometimes pain can be obvious, many times it’s subtle.
  • Dogs in pain are more likely to bite so be careful!
  • Behavior, breathing, heart rate, and even appearance can all change when your dog is experiencing pain.
  • If your dog is in pain, call your vet.
  • Never give a dog medication unless instructed to do so by your veterinarian.

As with many other aspects of caring for your dog, these signs will be more obvious to you (even when they are subtle) if you have a good idea of your dog’s “normal.”  This includes his normal attitude, energy level, gait, appetite, thirst, sleep patterns, and other physical and behavioral patterns.  After all, if you don’t know what’s “normal” it’s much more difficult to recognize what’s not.

Biting:   Dogs in pain are more likely to bite.  This is true even with their owners and other people they know.  This is particularly true when a person touches or moves the painful area.

Important note: When evaluating your dog for potential pain, please take great care to not get yourself (or anyone helping you) bitten.  Even if your dog would never normally bite anyone, the mere fact that you’re evaluating your dog for pain indicates that this may not be a normal time.  This brings me nicely to the first sign I’d like to discuss…

Breathing Changes:   Dogs experiencing pain may have a faster and more shallow breathing pattern than normal.  They may also pant.  You may even notice a change in the movement of the abdominal muscles and/or those of the chest.  Both sets of muscles are involved in the breathing process.

Heart and Pulse Changes:   Dogs in pain will often have an increased heart/pulse rate. The rate often noticeably speeds up when the painful area is touched or moved. Take a pet first aid course, or ask your veterinarian or one of the clinic technicians to show you how to check and measure your dog’s heart and/or pulse rate.

Posture Changes:   Dogs who are in pain may assume a very rigid, “sawhorse-type” stance, while others may assume the “prayer position” with their front legs on the ground, their butt up in the air, and a stretch throughout their abdomen. It looks like a “play bow,” but it is anything but playful. Some dogs in pain will lie around more, while others will be more “antsy” and have difficulty laying down and getting comfortable.  It all depends on the type, location, and severity of the pain. These postural changes can be even more subtle, taking the shape of an arched or sunken back, or even a dropped or tucked tail in a dog who normally has a perky tail.

Eye Changes:  The eyes can be great indicators of pain in dogs.  They change both for eye pain itself and for pain elsewhere in the body.  Often pain elsewhere in the body will result in larger (dilated) pupils, while pain in the eye(s) can result in either larger or smaller (constricted) pupils – depending on the underlying injury or disease process, and whether one or both eyes are affected.  Pained dogs will also frequently squint.  If their eyes are in pain, the affected eye(s) may also appear bloodshot.

Food and Water Changes:  Dogs in pain often eat and drink less than normal.  When they do eat and drink, if the cause of their pain is their teeth or some other part of the mouth, they may drop food and/or water from their mouth.

Energy Level Changes:  Most dogs in pain will have a general decrease in their activity level. This often shows as a dog who sleeps more.  It may also manifest as a dog who simply runs and/or jumps less than normal.

Mobility Changes:  Dogs in pain often move around less.  However, depending on what hurts, they may still move around the same amount, but do so differently (i.e. with a limp, or more slowly when going up or down the stairs, etc.)

Bathroom Changes:  Dogs who have back pain, for any reason, may have difficulty with the posture needed to defecate.  So, they may struggle to go to the bathroom.  Sometimes dogs with back pain can even become constipated in the process — though pain itself can also lead to slowed motility of the intestines, and thus lead directly to constipation, too.

Body Contour Changes:   Swellings, be they on your dog’s legs, body, or face, could indicate a painful condition, such as infection, inflammation, cancer, or others.

Dr. Lamb is the Veterinarian at the Manchester Animal Hospital