How to know your dog’s in pain

Animals try to hide symptoms they don’t feel good. In the wild, it’s a survival trait. When it’s our pets, we have to pay attention to know when a dog’s in pain.

There are some obvious signs. The most notable in our experience happened years ago. One day when we got home from work, our Boston Terrier Daemon screamed when we touched him. The shrieking was terrifying. Off to the emergency vet we went, in a blizzard. It turned out Daemon had gas. We’re grateful that’s all it was. But it was one of those moments when you really wish dogs could talk and we could have handed him a Tums.

Subtler signs

Most of the time, the signs your dog’s in pain will be much more subtle. 

Within the last few weeks, we noticed that Torque (Hope’s French Bulldog) had some muscle/skin twitching when we petted him along his side. If we hadn’t been watching at the time, we may not have noticed. We weren’t too bothered by it – we’d noticed him slip on the melting ice and figured he probably had a bruise or strained muscle. When we checked again the next day the twitching had stopped. 

With a fleeting pain signal like the twitching, watching it over the course of a day is probably safe, according to most veterinarians. If it persists, at least give your veterinarian a call and get her recommendation. 

photo of a bandaged stuffed dog in pain

Physical symptoms of pain in dogs, other than the muscle twitching may include: holding their head low, shaking or trembling, arching of the back, and panting.

Mobility issues can also be signs that your dog’s in pain. Reluctance to lie down or get up, limping, walking slowly, or sitting abruptly, could all be caused by pain.

Behavior changes that may indicate your dog’s in pain

One pain indicator that may be misinterpreted is restlessness, or an inability to calm down. It’s such a vague reaction that you may think your dog’s just being annoying, especially if you have a high-strung dog. 

Other signs may include: reluctance to eat, avoiding touch, constant licking or whining, and even aggression. 

The other day at the shop we had a customer come in to talk about her 16-year-old Yorkie. Her dog used to be wonderfully-behaved for grooming, including nail trims, tooth-brushing, and hair-trimming. But now the dog is cringing and even growling when the owner tries any of it. It’s quite likely the dog is suffering some pain, probably from arthritis at her advanced age, and the owner is going to talk to her vet about getting some relief for her dog.

Help with the diagnosis

If you think your dog may be in pain, one of the most helpful things you can do is keep track of what’s going on. These days, when many people are still unable to accompany their pets into the veterinarian’s office, a journal of symptoms may be extremely helpful in making a diagnosis. 

If you note that your dog is having trouble getting up after a nap, the vet may know to look at a specific part of the body. Same thing if your dog now prefers his/her bowl raised up off the ground. Or, like our customer with the Yorkie, something that’s changed over the last few months. With an issue like arthritis, the changes may be gradual over time and your observations can help.

Treatment options

There are many possible treatments for pain in dogs. These can range from watching for a day or two, to pain medication, to physical therapy and/or massage, to acupuncture, to surgery. But the first step to relieving it is knowing the signs when your dog’s in pain.

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