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Signs a Dog Is In Pain

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Detecting and Managing Pain in Dogs _ pitbull resting with a cone collar

Our dogs don't have the words to tell us when they're in pain. However, they often let us know in other ways, such as changes in their appearance or behavior.

Causes of Pain in Dogs

Dogs can experience pain for lots of reasons. Just like us, they can be in pain after an accident, such as tripping down the stairs, stepping on something sharp, or getting burned. They may hurt due to an illness like canine influenza or other health conditions, such as arthritis, intervertebral disc disease (IVDD), ear infections, dental disease, or stomach upset.

Ear infections, gastroenteritis, and cancer are among the most prevalent dog health conditions. Learn about these and other common dog ailments.

Signs a Dog Is in Pain

Sometimes it can be quite obvious that your dog is in pain, for instance, if they have a visible injury or started favoring one leg. They may also pull away or wince when you touch a certain area. Other times, those signs can be more subtle. Here are some ways to tell if your dog is experiencing pain:

  • Facial expressions – Our dogs can be very expressive. You may notice signs like a worried look or squinted eyes if your dog is in pain. Your dog's pupils may seem much larger or smaller than usual. They may pant when resting or lick their lips and make smacking noises.
  • Body posture – A dog in pain may appear very rigid, drop their tail, or lower their ears.
  • Changes in routine – A dog who is hurting may stop drinking as much as usual and lose interest in food, which can lead to weight loss. They may show changes in their sleeping patterns. For instance, they may sleep much more than usual, or they may appear restless and have trouble laying down.
  • Bathroom trouble – Depending on what hurts, they may have trouble getting into their usual position to go to the bathroom. They may also need to go more or less frequently and start having accidents around the house.
  • More vocalization – Your dog may try to tell you that something is wrong by making noises. They may yelp, growl, or even howl from the pain.
  • Shifts in behavior – Your ordinarily energetic and social dog may suddenly seem listless and withdrawn. Pain can also cause an increase in aggression.
  • Mobility issues – In addition to limping or favoring a limb, dogs in pain may have difficulty using the stairs, jumping up on the couch, or climbing into the car.

Cute German Shepherd in a blanket on bed

How Much Pain Is My Dog In?

Dogs can't explain to us how much they are hurting, but you can look at different factors to help assess their level of pain. Veterinarians at Colorado State University developed the Canine Acute Pain Scale with a pain score to help determine how much pain a dog may be experiencing.

  • Pain Score = 0: Resting comfortably, seems content, and looks relatively relaxed. Not bothered by the affected area. Interested in and curious about their surroundings.
  • Pain Score = 1: Content or slightly restless with mild body tension. Easily distracted by their surroundings. Winces, yelps, or otherwise reacts when the affected area is palpated.
  • Pain Score = 2: Appears uncomfortable while resting. May whimper or cry and lick at or rub the affected area when unattended. Has droopy ears and a worried facial expression. Not eager to interact with people or their surroundings but will look around to see what's going on. Mild to moderate body tension.
  • Pain Score = 3: Unsettled, crying, groaning, biting, or chewing at the affected area when unattended. Protects the area that hurts, for instance, by shifting body weight or limping. May be unwilling to move. May show subtle signs of pain like shifting eyes or breathing faster if it is too painful to move. May also show more dramatic signs, such as a sharp cry or pulling away.
  • Pain Score = 4: Constant growling or other vocalizations when unattended. Unlikely to move although may attempt to bite at or lick at the affected area. Potentially unresponsive to people or their surroundings. Difficult to distract the dog from the pain. May cry out or react aggressively to palpation.

What Can You Give a Dog for Pain?

If your dog is in pain, you should contact your veterinarian for treatment recommendations. They may suggest pain medication that is designed specifically for dogs. Never give your dog medication from your own bathroom cabinet since they can be toxic for dogs. You should also follow your veterinarian's dosage and timing instructions carefully to make sure your dog is taking a safe amount.

Additional Options for Pain Relief

While medication may be needed for pain, there are other ways to help a hurting dog. For instance, your veterinarian may recommend alternative treatments, such as acupuncture, therapeutic ultrasound, cold laser therapy, hydrotherapy, or physical therapy. They may also suggest that your dog lose weight, which can help alleviate pain from conditions like arthritis. In addition, prescription foods and supplements, such as omega-3 fatty acids and glucosamine, can be helpful for certain ailments.

Black Belgian Griffon with a red collar

Tips to Care for Dogs With Chronic Pain

If your dog has chronic pain from arthritis or another health condition, you can help improve their quality of life by making adjustments to their environment. For instance:

  • Set up ramps or small steps you can purchase from a pet store to help your dog get up to high places, like your bed, sofa, or other favorite resting spots. Ramps are also helpful to aid dogs in getting up and down stairs and into and out of vehicles.
  • Cover highly trafficked areas with area rugs, carpet runners, or yoga mats to help prevent your dog from tripping or slipping.
  • Raise your dog's food and water bowls, so they don't have to lower their head to eat or drink.
  • Use a baby or pet gate to restrict them from areas that are hazardous to your dog, such as staircases.
  • Buy your dog a soft pet bed to help them rest more comfortably. Look for specially made pet beds for arthritic dogs that are designed to take the pressure off aching joints.
  • Dry your dog off gently with a soft towel if you've been out walking in the rain or snow. Being cold and wet can aggravate pain.

Massage for Dogs

Massage can be beneficial to a dog who is in chronic pain, and it is something you can do at home. Ask your veterinarian to show you a safe technique, so you don't make the pain any worse. Massage can help your dog mentally as well as physically, since it can reduce boredom, frustration, and mental issues, like anxiety and depression. It's also a great way to strengthen the bond you share with your dog, which can get weakened if you're feeling worried about their condition or burdened by their increasing needs.

How Pet Insurance Can Help

If your dog is in pain, pet insurance can help you manage the costs of their care. It can reimburse you for tests to diagnose the problem along with treatments and medications needed to help your dog feel better. Get a quote to learn about the options for your dog and see how you can customize your plan to fit your coverage and budget needs.

The information presented in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute or substitute for the advice of your veterinarian.


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