Is My Dog In Pain?

Dogs can't talk and often do not cry or whine when sore. This means that to find out whether the dog is in pain, we must rely on non-verbal communication comprising facial expression, posture and movement.

Owners are often acutely aware of their dogs' facial expressions, but not so much posture or movement, other than obvious limping. Dogs' facial muscles, however, are not designed to give the same range and subtlety of facial expressions as we have.

Signs of pain
The clues to look for are changes in your dog's behaviour - the so-called possible pain behaviours such as

  • Limping.
  • Slowness.
  • Stiffness.
  • Difficulty rising from sitting or lying.
  • Is suddenly unable to jump on sofa or climb the stairs (could be a case of IVDD)
  • Panting.
  • Restlessness.
  • Changed sleep patterns.
  • Poor appetite. If a Corgi doesn't want to eat, something is definitely wrong, unless he doesn't like his new diet!
  • Avoiding play/exercise.
  • Avoiding human contact.
  • Submissive behaviour.
  • Anxiety.
  • Possible aggression - especially if moved or a sore part is touched.
  • Vocalisations - often none, but constant or intermittent whimpering, crying and/or growling are normal.

However, your dog does not have to show any or all of these signs to be in pain. Also, none of these behaviours mean that pain is definitely present.

Many dogs will not show signs of pain behaviour even in front of their owners. It is believed that this is instinctive self-protective behaviour, as looking as if you are weakened or in pain may lead to you being singled out as potential prey or reduce your standing in any hierarchy.

Owner observation
Owners play an extremely important role in the detection of pain. The visit to the vet may lead to your dog suppressing any signs of pain as nerves and adrenaline kick in. Many dog owners have probably found themselves in the situation that the dog starts limping at home or during walkies, but when taken to the vet for examination, there is nothing to see! Therefore, what you can tell the vet about your dog's behaviour at home is far more useful information about any possible pain than a clinical examination. This also means that your observations of sometimes small changes in behaviour are very useful in monitoring how well your dog responds to pain relief.

Treating pain
If you suspect that your dog is in pain, there are a number of possible treatment options depending on the cause.

Your first step should always be a visit to your vet to make sure that the underlying cause of any problem is diagnosed correctly. For example, a dog with mouth pain may need a dental which hopefully will result in a pain-free mouth. Possible signs of abdominal pain - adopting a praying position with the head down and bottom up in the air - may indicate a foreign body or inflammation of the pancreas, both of which require urgent and specific treatment.

Arthritis is one of the commonest causes of pain in older dogs, and people. As there, unfortunately, is no cure for arthritis, the mainstay of treatment is usually painkillers. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are usually the first-line treatment for pain relief. However, like almost all drugs, NSAIDs have the potential to cause side effects. For example, they may cause vomiting and/or diarrhoea, and more rarely bleeding into the stomach or liver or kidney problems.

Besides painkillers the following therapies may be useful in treating the pain of arthritis:

Weight loss: As little as an eight per cent weight loss may help to reduce pain.
Acupuncture: Release of body's own painkillers. Relaxation of muscle spasms. Possible decrease in NSAID dose.
Physiotherapy: Gives improved flexibility, balance and relieves muscle spasms and tightness.
Hydrotherapy/underwater treadmill: Exercise with decreased load on some joints. Helps weight loss and fitness. Also helps in the case of IVDD.