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How to Tell If Your Dog's in Pain and Why

Updated on April 10, 2018
kate stroud profile image

Kate worked as a veterinarian's assistant for five years before becoming a stay at home mother to two boys and a labradoodle rescue.

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How to Tell if Your Dog is in Pain

If your dog is doing any of the following, this could be a sign that they're in pain:

  • Whimpering
  • Howling
  • Yelping
  • Acting more aggressively than usual (or at all if your dog is a total tame lamb like mine)
  • Licking or chewing on one particular spot on their body
  • Sleeping more often than usual or, alternatively, pacing around and unable to sleep
  • Eating less than usual
  • Being less or more cuddly than usual (kind of like when a child has an ear infection)
  • Labored breathing, especially when they're resting
  • Constipation

As with anything, when in doubt, seek a professional. The longer your doggy goes with an undiagnosed injury or condition, the longer it'll take for him to heal.

Is your doggy exhibiting less chipper behavior than is his norm? This could be a sign that your pup is in pain.
Is your doggy exhibiting less chipper behavior than is his norm? This could be a sign that your pup is in pain. | Source

After a particularly long hike over some tumultuous terrain recently, our pup seemed more winded than usual. But I mean, so were we so I didn't take much thought to it as we made the short drive home and watched her walk straight to water dish as soon as we got back. For the rest of the day she slept on the cool tile in the kitchen and got up to go outside before bed only after some coaxing from my husband. I figured she was just dealing with a little fatigue from the long hike but when morning came and went without her touching her bowl of food or begging breakfast off the kids, I realized something was up.

After popping into her veterinarian we found out that she'd sprained her front ankle on our little excursion. I was surprised by this, because had I just shrugged off her lethargy and lack of appetite for a few more days like I was tempted to do, my poor dog's injury would've gotten worse while she also would have dealt with the side effects of pain like not eating enough and not getting outside to go to the bathroom which could have led to constipation and dehydration. Why didn't she give us a more obvious sign that she was in pain?

It turns out that dogs hide pain as an evolutionary survival instinct. According to this article on Psychology Today, written by Dr. Stanley Coren, they do this to avoid predators in the wild who might take obvious signs of pain, like crying out, as a cue to attack.

It got me wondering, if dogs purposely hide pain, how are we supposed to know when they're in it and what could be causing it? After talking to our vet we found out that there's a lot of different, nuanced ways dogs tell us (however accidentally) that they're in pain.

Being worn out after a day at the dog park is to be expected, but if your dog is lethargic even after a good night's sleep at your feet then it's time to start looking for other signs of pain.
Being worn out after a day at the dog park is to be expected, but if your dog is lethargic even after a good night's sleep at your feet then it's time to start looking for other signs of pain. | Source

Things Dogs Do When They're in Pain

They Make Unusual Noises

However stoic they may be, most dogs tend to be more vocal when they're in pain. Take note when your dog whimpers, yelps, groans, grunts, howls, growls, snarls, or whines more than usual.

They Keep Licking at Or Biting On the Same Spot on Their Body

Just like I'll rub my shoulder when I have a knot there, dogs lick their hurt areas in an attempt to soothe the pain. Licking is a dog's way of cleaning or disinfecting an external wound which we humans may mistake as our dog grooming himself because there's no obvious wound.

Dogs lick hurt areas even when the pain is internal in the hope that it'll fix the problem.

They'll Sleep Less Than Usual or More Than Usual

Some dogs will sleep more when in pain because they can't move around as much as they usually do or because they are trying to heal, just like my pup was when she sprained her ankle. In dogs who are dealing with more severe pain, they may not sleep at all.

They Eat Less

A discernible loss of appetite or differences in the amount of water your puppy drinks are both common symptoms of pain. If you dog acts like they're hungry but doesn't eat much or eats soft food better than crunchy kibbles, then this could be a sign of dental pain. Ouch!

Their Breathing Gets Weird

When I had my babies, I had to keep sniffing lavender oil to calm myself down enough to breathe normally. I was just in so much pain, it was easy to forget not to breathe too fast. Your dog will deal with the same kind of changes in breathing patterns if he's in particularly bad pain. So if you notice that he's panting, even when he's just chilling on the couch, or a change in the movement patterns of his chest or abdominal muscles it could be a sign that your dog is in pain.

They Get Sleepy

You know your dog's typical energy level. Mine gets excited when we come through the door, finds any excuse to curl up and cuddle, and will practically fly across the house if she hears even the slightest noise outside out front door. When she was dealing with her sprain, the mail carrier was of little to no concern to her and she didn't want to cuddle, she just stayed put on the kitchen floor for hours at a time. This wasn't her normal.

Other Signs Your Dog May Be in Pain

  • They act aggressively, probably for fear of ending up in more pain from being touched or handled.
  • Their posture during bowel movements changes, which can indicate back pain.
  • They retreat to a quiet corner of the house to avoid over-stimulation when they're already feeling vulnerable from the pain.

Things That Could Be Causing Your Dog Pain Besides Injury

Cause
Arthritis
Periodontal Disease
Gastritis
Symptoms
Stiff movement, favoring a certain paw or limb, and overall restlessness and discomfort.
Bad breath (you know, relatively speaking), drooling, difficult chewing, sneezing and nasal discharge, low energy levels.
Nausea, vomiting, blood in stool.
By now, you probably have an idea whether or not your dog is dealing with pain. Here's some common causes besides strains, sprains and visible injuries to talk to your veterinarian about.

What to Do if it Seems Like Your Dog is in Pain

If it seems like your dog is experiencing pain you should:

  • Grab a pen and paper and write down your dogs symptoms and how long they've been experiencing them for. So, if your dog has been licking at his hip for the past three days and hasn't pooped since yesterday afternoon, you'll want to note these as symptoms.
  • Call up your vet and let them in on what you've noticed. From there, they'll direct you on what to do next.

If there are really obvious signs of injury, like an open wound, blood on the fur or swelling then you should have your dog seen by a veterinarian right away, either their own or an emergency vet if it's after hours or the wound needs immediate attention. Be careful not to touch the wound or the spot that is swollen and be super gentle transporting your pup. Since a dog can't shout, "OMG THAT HURTS" they might lash out aggressively if they feel like you're going to cause them even more pain.

As with anything, when in doubt, seek a professional. The longer your doggy goes with an undiagnosed injury or condition, the longer it'll take for him to heal. Trust your dog-parent instincts, no matter how silly your fears may seem to you, and talk to a veterinarian about your concerns. After all, dogs depend on us humans to speak on their behalf.

Robin Kesnow of Animal RN Explains How to Spot Pain in Dogs

© 2018 Kate Stroud

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