Our dogs can’t tell us exactly how they’re feeling, so we reveal the five telltale signs that your dog is in pain
It’s sometimes said that one of the best things about dogs is that they don’t talk back. While this undoubtedly has its benefits, there are some situations when life would be a whole lot easier if our furry friends could just sit down and tell us exactly how they’re feeling. A perfect example of this is when a dog is in pain. As an owner, you always want to give your pet the best possible care and take immediate action whenever something is wrong. But if your dog can’t tell you he’s hurting, how can you give him the help he needs?
“It is not always easy to tell if a dog is in pain,” Dr Bronwen Slack, a veterinarian from PETstock, says. “Some signs of pain are easier to recognise, for example your dog may start to limp or hold their paw up if their leg hurts; however, some dogs will still run around on a sore leg. Other signs are more subtle — they may lick the area that hurts, or simply become less active and rest more.”
So, are our dogs quite good at concealing their pain from us? “Yes and no,” Laura Vissaritis, animal behaviourist from Melbourne’s Dognitive Therapy, says.
“From an evolutionary perspective, expression of pain can be perceived as weakness, so dogs don’t tend to seek consolation from others,” she says. “Having said that, however, they have similar pain receptors to us and while it may not seem they are in pain, it doesn’t mean they aren’t. It is so important to know your dog and pick up on their subtle expressions of pain. They will be feeling it, so it is up to us to find out.”
Let’s take a look at five common signs your dog is in pain and what you can do to help.
Sign #1: Lack of appetite
Dinner is usually the thing your dog looks forward to all day long, so what does it mean when she doesn’t finish her meal like she normally does or barely seems interested in food at all?
“If your dog sniffs their food but doesn’t take it, or if they don’t show any interest in investigating their food, they may be in pain. Often gum, tooth or mouth pain can cause this behaviour, as can stomach and digestive upsets, but all sorts of pain can hinder a dog’s healthy appetite,” Laura says.
“It is important to not force-feed your dog, or feed them rich foods, instead observing them for a short amount of time to see if there is any change. If not, I recommend you visit your trusted vet clinic.”
Sign #2: Aggression
Unexpected aggressive behaviour from your dog can be alarming and sometimes quite dangerous. It can also be a sign that your canine companion is in pain.
“A dog may yelp and snap if touched in a painful area — this is their way of telling us that they hurt and not to touch them,” Dr Bronwen says. “This often happens when a dog has a painful stomach and the owner tries to pick them up, or if they have hurt their leg or ear and the owner tries to touch it.”
Laura says that growling, snapping and biting can all be your dog’s way of warning you that she is hurting. “Examples of pain leading to aggression include but are not limited to thyroid disorders, neurological problems, brain tumours, seizures and hip dysplasia. Sometimes a range of issues compound and the dog’s threshold lowers, leading to aggression, so any indication of aggressive behaviours should be discussed with your vet as well as your behaviourist,” she says.
Sign #3: Reluctance to exercise
Most dogs love getting out and about to explore the world. “It is sort of like reading the doggy newspaper,” Laura says. “So if a dog lacks enthusiasm on a walk, is hesitant to step out the door or prefers to lie in their bed, they are certainly not themselves.”
When a dog is in pain, he can become lethargic and less mobile. “This can indicate health issues including hip dysplasia, cruciate ligament problems, distemper (although vomiting and diarrhoea are among these symptoms), ageing and arthritis, heartworm and even parvo. A yearly visit to the vet for a check-up is highly recommended as well as keeping an eye on your dog’s general wellbeing,” Laura says.
Sign #4: Breathing changes
Have you ever paid any attention to how your dog breathes? If Rover isn’t sucking in oxygen the same way he normally does, this could be an indicator of a health problem.
“A dog that is in pain will often breathe more shallowly and rapidly,” Dr Bronwen explains. “This often looks very similar to panting but if a dog is panting during cooler weather, it is more likely to be excited, anxious or painful than hot.”
Laura also points out that some breeds are more susceptible to breathing problems. “Pugs, Bulldogs and Bull Terriers are the most common breeds that tend to snore or reverse sneeze due to being brachycephalic (the skull is shorter than the typical dog species),” she says.
“Reverse sneezing can sound like a horrible panic for a dog but is generally harmless, while other behaviours can be of concern. Because dogs only sweat through their paws, they thermoregulate (cool down) through panting. For some breeds and older dogs, this is a struggle and so they can be more susceptible to breathing issues.”
Sign #5: Excessive grooming
Is your pooch obsessively grooming a particular area of her body, for example a paw? This could be a sign that all is not right with your pet.
“Painful or itchy areas often become the focus of excessive licking,” Dr Bronwen explains. “If your dog is constantly licking one area, then there may be something painful or itchy that is irritating him, such as a sprained wrist, grass seed or skin infection.”
If your pet displays any of the above signs, or if you suspect he might be in pain based on some other observation, seek veterinary advice. “Most dogs are very stoic and try to cover up their pain, so your pet may be more uncomfortable than you think. If your dog is showing any of these signs, then it is always best to have a vet check-up so that you can catch and treat any illnesses early before they become more serious,” Dr Bronwen says.
It’s also a good idea to trust your instincts and play it safe. “Often when we think our dogs are in pain, they are,” Laura says. “This is because dogs are often subtle in expressing their discomforts and it takes a while for us to realise how they are feeling. If they show one or more of the five common signs above, visit your vet for appropriate advice. It is also important to get to know your dog’s signs. After all, we are their guardians and the ones they trust to keep them safe.”
Know your dog
The key to recognising when your dog is in pain is developing an understanding of his or her body language. “As much as we would like them to, dogs are not able to tell us when they are not feeling well, so it is important to pay attention to your dog’s body language so that you can tell if there are any changes,” Dr Bronwen says.
“Most dog owners are very quick to tell if their dog is not their usual self, even if there is nothing obviously wrong. Pay attention to the way your dog moves, whether they are as active as they usually are or sleeping more, and whether their appetite is normal. If they have their ears back and tail tucked under, then they may be trying to tell you that they are unwell.”
Written by Tim Falk
Originally in Pets Issue 66