How Can I Tell If My Dog Is In Pain?

dog-painNobody wants to see their dog suffering and in pain. However, sometimes it can be very difficult to know for sure whether or not your dog is in pain. Sure, sometimes it’s quite obvious – a noticeable limp, large cut, or observed trauma, such as being struck by a car. But other times your dog’s signs of pain can be far more subtle. It’s at these times that people often need guidance on what to look for to know if their dog is in pain.

Signs That Could Indicate Pain in Dogs

Some dogs can be quite stoic and do a good (though detrimental) job of hiding and “living with” their pain.  But that’s not what we want for our dogs, right? Fortunately, there are lots of signs you can look for that might indicate your dog is experiencing pain.

Five Dog Pain Tips:

  1. Although sometimes pain can be obvious, many times it’s subtle.
  2. Dogs in pain are more likely to bite so be careful!
  3. Behavior, breathing, heart rate, and even appearance can all change when your dog is experiencing pain.
  4. If your dog is in pain, call your vet.
  5. Never give a dog medication unless instructed to do so by your veterinarian.

As with many other aspects of caring for your dog, these signs will be more obvious to you (even when they are subtle) if you have a good idea of your dog’s “normal.”  This includes his normal attitude, energy level, gait, appetite, thirst, sleep patterns, and other physical and behavioral patterns. After all, if you don’t know what’s “normal” it’s much more difficult to recognize what’s not.

*Important note: When evaluating your dog for potential pain, please take great care to not get yourself (or anyone helping you) bitten. Even if your dog would never normally bite anyone, the mere fact that you’re evaluating your dog for pain indicates that this may not be a normal time. This brings me nicely to the first sign I’d like to discuss…

  • Biting: Dogs in pain are more likely to bite . This is true even with their owners and other people they know. This is particularly true when a person touches or moves the painful area.

  • Breathing Changes: Dogs experiencing pain may have a faster and more shallow breathing pattern than normal. They may also pant. You may even notice a change in the movement of the abdominal muscles and/or those of the chest. Both sets of muscles are involved in the breathing process.

  • Heart and Pulse Changes: Dogs in pain will often have an increased heart/pulse rate. The rate often noticeably speeds up when the painful area is touched or moved. Take a pet first aid course, or ask your veterinarian or one of the clinic technicians to show you how to check and measure your dog’s heart and/or pulse rate.

  • Posture Changes: Dogs who are in pain may assume a very rigid, “sawhorse-type” stance, while others may assume the “prayer position” with their front legs on the ground, their butt up in the air, and a stretch throughout their abdomen. It looks like a “play bow”, but it is anything but playful. Some dogs in pain will lie around more, while others will be more “antsy” and have difficulty laying down and getting comfortable. It all depends on the type, location, and severity of the pain. These postural changes can be even more subtle, taking the shape of an arched or sunken back, or even a dropped or tucked tail in a dog who normally has a perky tail.

  • Eye Changes: The eyes can be great indicators of pain in dogs. They change both for eye pain itself and for pain elsewhere in the body. Often pain elsewhere in the body will result in larger (dilated) pupils, while pain in the eye(s) can result in either larger or smaller (constricted) pupils – depending on the underlying injury or disease process, and whether one or both eyes are affected. Pained dogs will also frequently squintI If their eyes are painful, the affected eye(s) may also appear bloodshot.

  • Food and Water Changes: Dogs in pain often eat and drink less than normal.,When they do eat and drink, if the cause of their pain is their teeth or some other part of the mouth, they may drop food and/or water from their mouth.

  • Energy Level Changes: Most dogs in pain will have a general decrease in their activity level. This often shows as a dog who sleeps more. It may also manifest as a dog who simply runs and/or jumps less than normal.

  • Mobility Changes: Dogs in pain often move around less. However, depending on what hurts, they may still move around the same amount, but do so differently (i.e. with a limp, or more slowly when going up or down the stairs, etc.)

  • Bathroom Changes: Dogs who have back pain, for any reason, may have difficulty with the posture needed to defecate. So they may struggle to go to the bathroom. Sometimes dogs with back pain can even become constipated in the process – though pain itself can also lead to slowed motility of the intestines, and thus lead directly to constipation, too.

  • Body Contour Changes: Swellings, be they on your dog’s legs, body, or face, could be an indication of a painful condition, such as infection, inflammation, cancer, or others.

Conditions That Are Often Painful for Dogs

While it’s quite obvious and intuitive that a broken bone, gaping wound, or recent surgical procedure will likely be painful to your dog, those aren’t the only causes for pain. There are lots of other common conditions that cause pain that often go unrecognized by dog owners and therefore untreated by their veterinarians. If your dog has been diagnosed with any of the conditions below, be sure to speak with your veterinarian to make sure that any painful aspect of the condition is being treated properly. In fact, if your dog is diagnosed with any medical condition, it is always a good idea to ask your veterinarian if there is any pain component to the condition and, if so, what options there are for treating that pain.

  • Cancer – especially bone cancer, any type of cancer that enlarges a capsular organ (e.g. a kidney or the spleen), and tumors that press on important internal structures.
  • Kidney or bladder stones
  • Bladder inflammation (“cystitis”)
  • Ear infection – these can be very painful for dogs, especially if the infection has been going on for a long time and/or it involves the middle or inner ear. Read about "when NOT to clean your dog's ears."
  • Inflammation of the pancreas (“pancreatitis”) and/or the stomach (“gastritis”) and intestines (“enteritis”)
  • Inflammation of a joint (“arthritis”) – could be the hip(s), elbow(s), or any other joint(s)
  • Cruciate ligament damage or “sliding knee cap” (“patellar luxation”)
  • “Slipped disc(s)” (Intervertebral disc disease or IVDD for short)
  • Periodontal disease or tooth fracture
  • Eye problems such as glaucoma, uveitis, or corneal ulcers

It’s important to speak with or see your veterinarian any time your dog is in pain, or you’re thinking that he may be. Not only is it important so that the underlying cause of the pain can be determined and appropriately treated and managed, but also because many pet owners have inadvertently caused toxicity or further injury to their dog by self-prescribing medications without first checking with their veterinarian. That is certainly a pain and heartbreak you don’t want to bring upon yourself!

Read this article about how one physician, used to treating people, almost killed her own dog, and then learn more about the dangers of human medications in pets.

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Topics: Dogs, Can I Give My Dog Advil, Can I Give My Dog Tylenol, Signs of Pain, Warning Signs, Pain management, Blog, Is my dog in pain

Photo Credit: Preventive Vet

Please do not ask emergency or other specific medical questions about your pets in the blog comments. As an online informational resource, Preventive Vet is unable to and does not provide specific medical advice or counseling. A thorough physical exam, patient history, and an established veterinary-patient-client relationship is required to provide specific medical advice. If you are worried that your pet is having an emergency or if you have specific medical questions related to your pet’s current or chronic medical conditions, please contact or visit your veterinarian, an animal-specific poison control hotline, or your local emergency veterinary care center.

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