How to Know When Your Dog is in Pain - And What to Do About It!

Let’s face it—the idea of dogs being in pain is something that none of us like to think about. The vast majority of dog owners are conscientious people who want nothing but the best for their precious pooches. The unfortunate reality, however, is that many of our dogs can experience pain without us even realizing it, which is why it’s something we need to educate ourselves on in order to keep our hounds as healthy as possible. Dogs are very stoic creatures and, as veterinarians, we’d like for you to be able to recognize the signs of your dog being in pain so that you can bring them to us to identify and take care of what’s causing them such misery. Below, we’ve shared ways to know if your dog is in pain, how we as veterinarians will get to the root diagnosis, and how you can make life easier for your pooch at home with dog pain management. 

How To Know If Your Dog is in Pain

There are 2 main types of pain—acute and chronic pain. It’s important to distinguish between these two to determine if a trip to the vet is warranted.

Acute Signs of Pain in a Dog Are:

  • Limping or reluctance to move
  • Growling, especially when touched in a certain area such as the belly or wound
  • An abrupt decrease in appetite
  • Lethargy
  • Obsessive licking at a particular area

Chronic Signs of Pain Are:

  • Reluctance to go up or down the stairs or to jump onto furniture
  • Difficulty standing after lying down
  • Decreased energy level
  • A gradual decrease in appetite

If you are perceiving pain in your pet, then we recommend a vet visit.

What Kinds of Questions Will My Veterinarian Ask?

There are many things that we will want to know in order to make a proper diagnosis in your dog and hopefully get them on the path to being pain-free.

Some questions your veterinarian may ask regarding your dog’s pain are:

  • The length of time these possible signs of pain have been noticed
  • Whether there has been a change in intensity/frequency
  • Whether anything that precipitated these signs - ie: playing with other dogs/cats, episode of crying out
  • The dog’s story of prior medical issues and any concurrent medications/supplements
  • An assessment of appetite, drinking, urination, vomiting, diarrhea

Get Your Dog to the Veterinarian

As veterinarians, it’s hard to write a blog post suggesting that you take your dog to the veterinarian, as we know that could seem self-serving. The bottom line is that we want your dogs to be free of pain and we know that you do, too, which is why you should always bring your dog to the vet if you suspect that they are in pain.

Whether it’s a visit to the vet or the emergency vet depends on the level of pain. The more severe the perceived pain, the more likely this is an emergency visit.

Can I Do Anything to Help My Dog Before Taking Them to the Veterinarian?

Restrict any activity. Keep them comfortable on a pet bed or blankets until you can get them professional attention. If there is a bleeding wound, wrap it gently with bandage material or a clean cloth. If there is a specific area of swelling, consider cold packing the area using a gel ice pack wrapped in a light towel and gently applied to the affected area. If your pet does not allow this, then we recommend you don’t pursue it, as you don’t want to further upset them.

Do NOT give any over the counter pain relievers made for human use. This can be dangerous for your pet's health and potentially delay your pet from getting certain effective veterinary pain relievers.

Identify the Source of Pain and Treatment

Depending on the source of pain, we may see the need for a full physical exam and tests, including X-rays and bloodwork. A pain reliever may need to be administered prior to an exam or additional testing might be needed if the pain level is severe.

Pain Medications For Dogs

Pain-relieving medications for dogs are typically NSAIDs, gabapentin, or others. We might also recommend supplements if appropriate. Complementary therapies like cold laser or acupuncture may also be recommended.

Stick to the Pain Medication Regimen

A common mistake is to discontinue pain medication too soon as pet owners believe their pet to be feeling better and not need the medication any longer. Unfortunately, this can delay the true healing and potentially contribute to recurrence or set-backs. Also, long-term chronic pain is a concern in that it can increase cortisol levels (a stress hormone) which can lead to effects on other body systems including the immune system.

What You Can Do For Your Dog At Home to Ease Any Pain

Follow the directions provided by your veterinarian including any prescribed medications, restricted exercise, or diet restrictions. As mentioned, we know it can be tempting to cut treatments short when we think our dogs are feeling better, but it’s best to be diligent about your veterinarian’s orders.

Besides medications, supplements, or complementary therapies prescribed by your veterinarian, consider ways to reduce obstacles. For example - you might buy a set of pet steps to access the sofa or bed (if allowed) and/or a ramp to access outdoor steps. Consider a harness or sling to assist in standing from a lying down position when.

Because dogs can tend to hide symptoms of pain until an illness or injury has progressed, it’s best to take your faithful friend to the veterinarian if you see any obvious changes in behavior. If you have any questions or suspect your dog may be in pain, we can help you find a local vet!


Contributing DVM