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How to Know When Your Dog is in Pain

The International Veterinary Academy of Pain Management (IVAPM) has proclaimed September as Animal Pain Awareness Month, to coincide with our…

How to Know if your Dog is in Pain

The International Veterinary Academy of Pain Management (IVAPM) has proclaimed September as Animal Pain Awareness Month, to coincide with our human Pain Awareness Month, also in September. The more I have learned about the reasons for this awareness, the more I can totally get behind its purpose. As in all things with our pets, we need to be their voices in communicating their needs and seeking to understand what it is they are trying to tell us. And if they are in pain, it may not be that easy.

According to the American Animal Hospital Association, most U.S. veterinary schools spend less than ten hours teaching about pain, and most of that is about perioperative pain. As a result, when our dogs have chronic pain, it is not always recognizable to the practitioner. It’s up to us to watch for any sign of pain in our dogs, no matter how subtle they may be. How tragic it would be for our little ones to have to suffer silently.

Years ago, I was down on the floor playing with my dog. We’d wrestle around a little and then play-fight over a toy…. She was having a good time. Then suddenly she stopped playing and quickly laid, stomach down, front legs forward, facing my direction. Her eyes were wide and focused on me. At first I thought it was part of the game and kept trying to get her to come to me and take the toy. She wouldn’t move. That’s when I got closer and realized she was trembling. She had hurt her back. She stayed in that position while I called the vet and asked to bring her in. That was the beginning of a long run of managing my sweet girl’s back pain. Had I not been present when Haley’s injury first occurred, I may have never known that she had hurt her back. After that first episode, she never made it obvious that she was in pain. Over time, I learned how to read her very subtle signs.

It’s difficult with dogs. They can be so stoic. Part of this is a result of their evolutionary beginnings. Remember “survival of the fittest?” In the wild, if an animal was maimed or injured, they were thought of as weak by the other animals in their pack. Sometimes weaker members of the pack were either run off by the other members or challenged and killed. Dogs have learned to protect themselves and their standing within the pack by concealing their pain. Because of this instinctive behavior, it’s hard for us to know when they are hurting. It’s sad to think that our dogs may be afraid to let us know that they are in pain for fear of us running them off or abandoning them, whether it is a conscious or unconscious thought.

On the other hand, there is a minority of dogs who don’t mind at all letting us know they’re in pain. They can be very verbal about it, crying, “screaming”, whining. Or they may try to get our attention in more “melodramatic” ways. Truthfully, it would be best if all dogs would communicate their pain to us, but unfortunately, they do not. So, how do we know if our pup is in pain?

Dog Pain Symptoms: Obvious signs of pain

There are some obvious signs of pain in dogs. If your dog has dental pain, you may find that they are not enjoying their favorite chew toy. Maybe they are chewing on only one side of their mouth, making sure they don’t chew on the sore side. If your dog is squinting, there may be something in their eye or wrong with their eye. If they are squinting while urinating or defecating, they may have a urinary tract infection, or suffer from constipation or anal gland complications. If they are hunched over – showing a strong arch in their back and tucking in their abdomen, their pain is more likely in their spine, rear area, or stomach area. If they are limping, it’s fairly obvious that the injury is in one of their paws or legs. Another symptom I think should be added under “obvious signs of pain” is trembling or shaking. Although trembling itself does not tell us where it hurts, it is apparent that something is wrong.

Dog Pain Symptoms: Non-Obvious signs of pain

This is what we really need to take to heart. How can we know if our brave, ever so stoic dog is hurting?

First and foremost, we need to simply pay attention. If we haven’t been paying attention – and I mean really paying attention – to our dog’s normal, pain-free personality and gait up to this point, we may have trouble with this one. We can only recognize the “difference” in our pet when we know what is “normal”. We don’t have to be psychic… We just need to be in tune to see signs our dog is in pain.


Does your dog get up and down from sleeping and lying positions easily, or do they seem to be struggling? Have you noticed that they’re moving a little slow, or perhaps favoring a particular limb? Do they seem unable to get comfortable at times? Do they suddenly seem apprehensive about jumping off the bed when they always did so freely in the past? Maybe they don’t want to get out of the bed in the morning, not because they’re sleepy, but because they don’t really feel like moving? Look for these types of peculiarities in your dog’s movements. What’s normal, what’s not?


Rex licks his feet often. He has done it for so long that we believe it to be some sort of allergy, if not a habitual thing. Some dogs lick their feet to “soothe” a pain. How do we know whether our dog is licking its feet to soothe a pain or if they are licking because their feet itch? In Rex’s case, I know because licking is a normal thing for him. Is this behavior new to your dog? Then he/she could be in pain. The injury doesn’t have to be obvious. I mean, there does not have to be an observable cut or abrasion to make them lick. The injury could be internal. Licking pacifies. It’s comforting. This is something our dogs have learned to do to help with the pain regardless of where it originates.

Panting can be a sign of pain. Let’s say it’s a cool day, or your dog is in a comfortable air-conditioned home, and they are panting. When there is no real reason for them to be warm and panting, they may be in pain. Haley was a panter. It wasn’t extreme, but it was definitely noticeable. Generally, there will be other signs accompanying the panting, like a mild anxiety or restlessness.

Pacing was another of Haley’s subtle signs of pain. She would make it look as if she had somewhere she needed to go… like to her water bowl. She would make the trip several times and maybe take a few small drinks of water, but generally she would just look at her bowl and move on and continue walking around. When dogs are in pain, they may have trouble resting or settling down. Pacing becomes a coping mechanism.

Pay attention to your dog’s carriage. Does he/she seem rigid or stiff? Are they not their usual relaxed, squishy self? If their stance is stiff and unnatural, it very well could be a sign of pain. It may be back pain or many other types of illnesses or injuries.


Does your dog seem a little more “clingy” than usual? Do they suddenly follow you from room to room? If they could talk, does it seem like they have something to tell you? Or maybe your dog is having the opposite reaction… they don’t want to be around you or family members at all! They could be withdrawing because they – just like people – would rather deal with the pain on their own and not be bothered. Likewise, your dog may shy away from affection. Maybe it hurts to be touched so they’re keeping their distance.

Aggression. I’m sure you are aware that if you approach a dog who has been hit by a car (for example) that you should proceed slowly because they may bite. Dogs often become aggressive when they are in pain. It’s a natural instinct to protect themselves. Your sweet dog may become snappy with your family. They don’t want to be touched. When you do approach your dog, be very gentle. Move cautiously. They really don’t want to bite you, but their options to communicate are pretty limited. Without advancing to full aggression mode, you may find your dog is simply irritable or agitated.

What happens when we get sick? We slow down and want to rest. The same happens with our dogs. They are tired. They are more lethargic than usual. They may be attempting to heal themselves with rest. You’ll notice that they don’t want to play, or they might not want to go on their daily walk.

Lack of appetite. If your otherwise ravenous pup suddenly isn’t interested in eating, take note that he may be in pain.

Important Note

Many of the signs of pain that we have discussed are shared symptoms of other, and possibly even more serious illnesses or injuries. When we observe these kinds of things, let’s try not to assumptions… i.e., “Oh, he probably hurt himself jumping from the porch… he’ll be okay”. Secondly, we should resist the urge to medicate what we believe to be the issue. No diagnosis, no treatment. These are things best reserved for the experts, our veterinarians.

If you have scheduled a vacation at Holiday Barn Pet Resorts for your pup and have noticed some possible signs of pain, please let us know. This will help us to be proactive in case the condition worsens during their stay. It is advisable to have your dog checked by the vet before their visit to assist us in knowing which type of activities would be best for them. Your dog’s comfort while in our care is very important to us.

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