Without the ability to tell us, in our own words, just what they are feeling, our canine companions often suffer from unrecognized signs of pain. It is something that breaks the hearts of pet owners everywhere, whether it stems from a chronic illness, recent injury, management of acute pain, or relief from general old-age issues. No matter the cause, unrecognized signs of pain in dogs are important to managing quality of life.
Often, when owners find out their pets have been suffering, there is a deep sense of guilt and remorse, followed by the discovery of pain symptoms most people wouldn’t know to look for in their dog.
Common conditions with hidden pain
Arthritis: As many as 20% of all dogs over the age of one year experience some form of osteoarthritis, and that means there is a major need for joint pain relief in dogs. Osteoarthritis is just one of many painful arthritic conditions that can affect dogs, but it is one of the most common. The American College of Veterinary Surgeons (ACVS) defines this condition as “a chronic joint disease characterized by loss of joint cartilage, thickening of the joint capsule and new bone formation around the joint (osteophytosis) and ultimately leading to pain and limb dysfunction.”
Infections: There are a number of infectious diseases out there that can cause significant discomfort for your dog. Many of these are vaccinated against in the clinical setting at a young age; however, not all dogs receive their vaccinations, and not all vaccine protocols are made equal. Some infections, like heartworm and other parasitic conditions, are difficult to prevent, and others, like ringworm and kennel cough, are easily spread from one dog to another in social situations. All of these infections, as well as infection from untreated wounds, can be the cause of unidentified signs of pain in dogs.
Chronic Disease: Chronic disease can mean a great many things in the veterinary world, from cancer to kidney failure, to liver disease. All of these hidden conditions cause changes in the body, and none of those changes are ones that promote a pain-free existence. Chronic kidney disease, for example can manifest with signs of pain in dogs such as weakness, lack of appetite, bleeding and bruising of the skin, and excessive drinking.
Injury: The most obvious cause of pain in dogs for owners to see, injury can be a visible, alarming wound, or it can be an invisible muscle tear or ligament rupture.
Surgery: For decades in the infancy of veterinary care, surgical pain was heavily debated, especially since pets under the influence of anesthesia were in a completely relaxed, unresponsive state. It was difficult for clinicians to gauge level of pain. As we gained a higher understanding of how pain affected people recovering from surgeries, the veterinary community soon realized many pain management protocols were substandard. Just as humans experience lingering pain after an operation, so, too, do animals.
Acute Pain: Pain does not have to be chronic to be considered an issue. Dog pain symptoms are apparent even with seasonal or self limiting issues, like a skin allergy or an insect bite.
The top 10 signs of pain in dogs
Extensive lying down process: It’s not uncommon for dogs to want to take their time getting comfortable right before they go to sleep. In fact, your dog’s pre-bed preparation might be one of your favorite behaviors, complete with blanket wadding and positioning of favorite toys. If your dog hasn’t always had a sleep routine, however, and you’re finding he or she takes a bit more time to settle in, this may be an early warning sign of pain. The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) notes, in particular, the “false start” should be a red flag for owners, that moment where their pet looks like it is about to lay down but reconsiders and attempts to try again.
Reluctance to jump/use stairs: It should come as no surprise that dogs with pain issues will also show a reluctance to do things that require extra strain on the body’s limbs. While a reluctance to jump or use stairs is often an indication for joint pain relief in dogs, it can also be a warning sign of other types of pain. A dog suffering abdominal pain, for example, will likely be reluctant to perform movements that extend or contract the torso.
Antisocial or aggressive behavior: Not all signs of pain in dogs are physical. Some can manifest as behavioral warnings, such as unusual aggression or antisocial behavior. Signs can be as subtle as pinned ears, widened eyes, vacant stare, and enlarged pupils. Pain will make a dog not want to participate in things he or she used to enjoy, and that may mean being reclusive or snapping at people for unknown reasons. The same can be said for dogs that are usually aggressive and suddenly turn docile; they may be exhibiting a pain response.
Changes in drinking water (way more or way less than normal): Changes in drinking habits are one of the more readily noticed signs of pain in dogs since owners are actively involved in refilling water bowls. While this may not seem strange on a hot day, a sudden uptake or decrease in water consumptions can indicate an underlying issue like diabetes or kidney disease.
Loss of appetite: In similar fashion to drinking water habits, eating habits are one of the few signs of pain in dogs that owners are quick to pick up on. It’s not uncommon for a stressed dog not to eat; in fact, dogs that are stressed won’t eat, which is why canines with separation anxiety often don’t respond to food distractions. Stress can also be a sign of pain, and certain illnesses can cause extreme nausea or loss of appetite.
Increased sleeping: Sleep is one of the body’s first defense mechanisms and one that should not be ignored. When a dog starts sleeping more, owners should pay attention to the circumstances. Yes, an exciting day at the park will wear your dog out, but chronic sleeping changes are not to be dismissed. The body attempts to heal itself while it sleeps, and this is often one of the common signs of pain in dogs that goes unnoticed for a long period of time.
Increased barking, yelping, snarling, growling, or howling: Perhaps one of the most influential signs of pain in dogs is increased vocalization. Just as we cry out when we are in distress, dogs do have the ability to be vocal about when they are feeling pain. Not all dogs will do this, and it should not be the primary warning sign owners look for. Many dogs suffer in silence.
Excessive licking: Considered a form of self mutilation, excessive licking should be noted. This is very common in dogs with joint pain; you will see them obsessively licking the same area on a leg or foot. Other forms of self mutilation to be on the lookout for include excessive itching/scratching, chewing, and hair pulling.
Heavy panting or erratic breathing: Any breathing pattern changes can be signs of pain in dogs. Yes, panting can be a way for a dog to cool down on a hot day, but consistent panting is a concern. Dogs will often pant when they are stressed or afraid, and if nothing has happened but panting persists, and underlying pain condition may be the cause.
Swelling, Shaking, or Trembling: Other obvious signs of pain in dogs include those we can see from a distance, such as shaking, trembling, or swelling in areas on the body. Swelling does not need to be linked to a blunt tissue trauma. Many types of swelling can be caused by underlying disease and fluid retention.
What to do when you see signs of pain in dogs
Whenever you notice potential signs of pain from your canine companion, the first step is to call and make an appointment with your veterinarian. Until you know what is wrong, you should never give any medications or supplements at home. A clear diagnosis will direct you further, and you can often look into the therapies at your disposal. Many pet parents look for natural ways to aid the discomfort in their dogs, with products like CBD for Pets, or CBD treats, but it is vital to have a full workup done on your pet first.