When we're children, if we feel under the weather or we hurt ourselves, the first thing we do is tell our parents and ask for help. But when our fur children are in pain, they can't simply come up and tell us. That means that as pawrents, it's our responsibility to actively notice when our dogs are hurting and to seek veterinary help on their behalf. We need to learn to recognise the signals of chronic (long-term) or acute (short-term) pain. Unfortunately, our stoic little friends don't make this easy for us! Dogs tend to be able to live with pain without drama, bravely soldiering on with their everyday lives despite aching limbs, sickness and even cancer pain. However, if we watch carefully enough, there are many signals that our pups might be hurting.
- Loss of appetite (what veterinarians call anorexia). This can often be the first alarm bell if you have a food-motivated dog! You might find that your pup still seems interested in their dinner but guards the food rather than eating it – or simply refuses food entirely. If your dog is refusing hard foods, try a wet alternative or soften kibble with water: this could help identify a dental issue. If he or she still refuses food, no matter the texture, there may be other kinds of pain in play. Of course, if your dog is normally a fussy eater, refusing food might not be such an obvious red flag. Try dog treats that you know they love or high-value human food like peanut butter. If they’re still rejecting these gourmet alternatives, it’s worth booking a veterinary check-up.
- Reluctance to be touched or picked up. When your normally affectionate fur friend starts avoiding human contact, it can be particularly distressing; especially when, if we suspect our dog is suffering, our first instinct is to physically comfort them! But stroking, cuddling or lifting a painful dog can make their symptoms worse. If your pup seems to be spending more time alone than normal or yelps, freezes or growls when you go to pick them up, it’s time to seek medical advice.
- New behavioural issues. Scientific research tells us that it’s common for dogs presenting unusually ‘bad’ behaviour to have underlying pain: it makes sense that changes in physical health impact mental health. After all, when we humans feel chronic or acute pain, we’re likely to be less tolerant of other people, quicker to anger and often become depressed. Similarly, your dog might become snappy, more likely to growl at humans and other dogs, or lethargic. They may start resource guarding, humping, engaging in repetitive behaviour or refusing to go for walks. They may even have accidents around the house, as pain makes it more difficult to control bowel or bladder movements. Dental pain might cause them to chew shoes or furniture. Never punish your dog for these behaviours: treat them as a call for help and respond as quickly as you can. Your vet can then investigate the root cause of their psychological changes.
- Loss of agility. This can often be confused with ‘normal’ aging in dogs; it’s easy to dismiss your dog’s new aversion to long walks, to playing, jumping on and off the sofa, or slower pace when climbing stairs as a natural part of getting older. Similarly, both older dogs and painful dogs tend to sleep much more frequently. It’s always possible that something other than ‘old age’ is going on, especially if this behaviour change is fairly sudden. What’s more, feeling sore or achy in old age isn’t something we need to accept as normal for our dogs: it may be that your vet can prescribe a low dose of medication to make them more comfortable.
- Unusual movement. One classic pain-related movement is the ‘praying position’, which looks like downward dog in yoga. Sicking their bottom up in the air while their front legs and head are lowered onto the floor is a sign of abdominal pain and may be accompanied by a swollen belly. Of course, this is also the position for a play bow or a ‘big stretch!’ so it’s easy to miss. Try to notice if your dog is doing this pose more often than usual or at different times of the day. Also, keep an eye on any unprompted shaking or trembling, a sign that your dog may be feeling unwell.
- Change in preferred location. Notice if your dog is gravitating to different areas of your home or avoiding certain rooms. A painful dog is often reluctant to move into tight spaces where they might feel confined, or to walk on slippery floors where they could slip and experience more discomfort. You might see your dog’s ears pull back or their tail stop wagging when you lead them into a space they’re worried about. Whether or not your dog is in pain, making sure your house has plenty of rugs and/or carpeted areas is a great way to prevent and mitigate joint pain for your dog, giving them a more secure surface to walk and play on.
- Increased resting breathing rate. An average healthy dog should take between 15 to 35 breaths per minute when resting. If you suspect your dog is breathing faster than this, use your phone to time the number of breaths they take in 60 seconds. Anything above 40 breaths per minute while your dog is at rest is considered abnormal and worth investigating. Lower rates are less cause for concern as long as your pup is otherwise healthy. You can also look out for changes in the quality of your dog’s breathing: heavy panting indicates pain, while very shallow breathing may be a sign that it hurts to take a full breath.
- Excessive grooming. A dog who’s become fixated on licking their paws hasn’t developed a compulsive hygiene obsession: it’s more likely they’re trying to soothe themselves. When your hound is hurt, their first instinct is often to clean and care for the wound by licking it, and when the wound is internal, they may still try to do this. Check for external injuries first, but if there’s nothing obvious and your dog continues to lick, you should seek medical help.
- Unusual vocalisation. Probably the most obvious sign of pain, a dog who is suddenly yelping, growling, snarling or even howling isn’t a comfortable dog! These are literal cries for help and we need to listen.
What if your vet can’t find anything wrong?
Unfortunately, sometimes we might identify one or more of these signals, but our vet is unable to find a cause. In this case, don’t dismiss the possibility that your dog might still be suffering. There are a lot of reasons why a vet might not identify pain on physical examination, despite the presence of an underlying painful condition. Your dog might not be feeling pain at the exact moment of the examination: like us, our dogs can have good and bad days. Their pain might not be the kind that’s made worse by movement or manipulation, or they might be increasing their muscle tension to protect themselves from the painful pressure. Remember that adrenalin is also a powerful thing: if your dog is experiencing stress from being at the vet, this can temporarily reduce sensitivity to pain.
In this situation, it’s crucial that you are your dog’s advocate and insist on further veterinary examination, whether this be taking full bloodwork or putting your dog on a pain trial. The best way you can help with this is by collecting evidence that your dog is suffering: take videos of your dog during movements like getting up (or refusing to move, like getting ‘stuck’ on the sofa). Canine Arthritis Management has great tips for getting good quality footage. Count and film your dog’s increased BPM at different times of the day. Capture their unusual behaviour on your phone.
Ideally, your vet will then put your dog on a pain trial, which means they are prescribed pain relief over a period of time (normally a minimum of 4 weeks) and monitored to assess if there is any change in their pain signs. The treatment might be as simple as a low dose of paracetamol, or it could be stronger pain meds or anti-nausea pills, depending on the veterinarian’s initial assessment. If you do see an improvement in your furry friend, this will be evidence that they are indeed experiencing underlying pain and a prompt for your vet to keep investigating to find the cause.
Because our dogs can’t describe where it hurts and for how long they’ve been suffering, we must be their voices. The best thing we can do for our best pals is to give them our full attention, to notice when things aren’t quite right, and then to advocate for them until they get the help they need.
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