13 Warning Signs Your Dog Is in Pain
If you see any of these symptoms in your darling pet, they’re an indication you need to send him to the vet STAT.
How to tell if a dog is in pain
Your dog literally trusts you with his life. Even so, he may instinctually hide his pain from you. It’s not because he suddenly doesn’t think you’re in his corner. The culprit, rather, is evolutionary hard-wiring that goes back thousands of years to your dog’s ancestral beginnings as a hunter-predator. “From an evolutionary standpoint, dogs who exhibited outward signs of pain were more at risk of attack from a predator. Over time, dogs learned to mask symptoms, which showed weakness, or vulnerability. From a survival perspective, many animals tend to hide outward expressions of pain,” says veterinarian, veterinarian Jeff Werber. But you can still learn what your dog actually wants without having a full conversation.
Your usually ravenous pup won’t eat
No, your dog doesn’t think she needs to go on a diet. A change in appetite can signal a number of medical conditions in dogs. It can also mean your dog is in pain. “Owners usually notice when their chowhounds aren’t living up to their usual reputation for eating anything they can get their paws on. Lack of appetite, or, inappetence, as your veterinarian may call it, can be a sign of pain, or discomfort. If your pup has never missed a meal, there is reason to be concerned about her turning up her nose to food and treats,” says veterinarian Meghann Robinson, DVM, MPH. If your dog’s only symptom is skipping a meal, make sure her food is fresh and passes the smell test before you panic. Try giving her tasty, nutritious food you know she loves, such as cooled home-cooked chicken without seasoning. If her appetite remains on-off for more than a day or two, call the vet.
Your dog is breathing heavily
It is normal for dogs to pant heavily during and after exertion. But panting after exercise can sometimes also indicate medical emergencies, including pain, heatstroke, or poisoning. It’s also one of the dog illness symptoms to watch out for. “Panting is a subtle, often overlooked sign of pain. Some dogs in pain pant more than usual, but eat, drink, and seem normal. If the temperature where the dog spends most of their time hasn’t changed much, but the amount they’re panting has, heed this warning and consult your veterinarian right away. Panting can also be a subtle sign of severe pancreatitis. It was in my own dog, and even I, as a vet, missed it for a week,” shares Dr. Robinson.
Whimpering and whining
The sound can break your heart. Some dogs remain stoically quiet when they’re hurting but others, especially young dogs who have not experienced physical discomfort, may whimper and cry when they’re feeling pain. Your presence may provide comfort and lead them to stop whining. It does not, however, mean they are no longer hurting. “Whimpering or increased vocalizations, which can be intermittent, constant, or when touched, can indicate pain. But vocalization can be deceiving—some owners think a quiet pet is not in pain. Just because your dog is not whimpering, does not mean he or she is not in pain,” says veterinarian Heidi Cooley, DVM, Chief of Staff at Banfield Pet Hospital. If your dog has just had surgery and is whimpering, make sure you are giving him the correct amount of pain medication. If there is no clear reason why he is crying out, a vet’s immediate attention is imperative. “As a pet owner, it’s important to be in tune with your pet’s behavior and habits and to take action when you notice or suspect something is ‘off.’ There are various causes of pain for pets, and some can be quite serious. So after determining how to tell if a dog is in pain, the next thing to do is speak with your veterinarian. They can be helpful in evaluating your pet’s level of pain and helping you find ways to relieve it. The earlier you catch and address potential signs of pain or illness with your veterinarian, the better your chances are of getting your pet back to a comfortable place,” says Dr. Cooley.
Your dog’s desire for affection changes
Your best buddy usually can’t get enough cuddles and pats, but lately, doesn’t want to be touched. Or maybe, the opposite is true, and your independent buddy is suddenly a clinging vine. These changes in behavior are sometimes linked to pain. “Tigers don’t change their stripes, and puppies don’t change their cuddles! A difference in the amount a dog likes to be petted or touched can be a sign that they are hurting. Like us, dogs can become much needier when they’re hurt, begging for your attention and comfort. On the other side of that same coin is the avoidance of contact. If your pup is all of a sudden hiding, spending more time alone, refusing to play with toys they love, or avoiding petting, there is likely a reasonable explanation,” explains Dr. Robinson. Your dog may try to avoid being touched altogether, or may startle, yelp, or nip if you touch him in a specific spot. These are all potential signs of pain. Vet bills can be expensive, but here’s the real lowdown on how much it costs to own a dog.
Biting, growling, or snapping
If you were in pain and someone wanted to pick you up or touch you where it hurt, you might want to bite their head off (or at least, tell them to back off). As distressing as it might be to have your fur baby growl at you or worse, your dog feels exactly the same way. “If you touch a dog, and he yelps or attempts to bite you, that would indicate extreme pain, such as we might expect to see in a dog with pancreatitis, for example,” says Dr. Werber. Even a gentle, friendly dog may bite their best friend if they are hurting. If your usually gentle pal has become aggressive, growls when you approach or touch her, or gets nippy, a vet’s appointment is a good idea.
If your dog is incessantly licking their legs, they may be trying to self-heal their own pain. “Licking of the legs can be a sign of arthritis or other sources of pain. Although they have a hard time distinguishing acute or new pain from chronic pain, dogs are inclined to try and heal the area by literally licking their wounds,” says Dr. Robinson. According to PetMD, arthritis in dogs can come on slowly, starting with soreness and discomfort that dogs try to hide. You may not notice your dog’s discomfort until the pain has become hard for her to handle. If you suspect that your aging pet is becoming arthritic, talk to your vet. “Your veterinarian may offer to run blood work and take radiographs of the areas your dog is focusing on, and can recommend a treatment plan to help keep your pet as comfortable as possible while they age,” says Dr. Robinson. Supplements, such as glucosamine, may also help with inflammation and stiffness, but will not cure arthritis in dogs. No pet owner is perfect—here are 53 mistakes that every dog owner makes.
If your dog is arching his back while tucking his belly up and under, he’s in pain. This behavior often indicates gastrointestinal distress, but it can also be a sign of back pain, such as a spinal injury or pinched nerve, or anal pain caused by too-full anal sac glands. According to the dog-walking website Wag!, a semi-permanent, arched posture—as opposed to the leisurely-type stretching dogs often do—is an emergency and you should call your vet immediately.
Restlessness, or a change in sleeping habits
Pain can make it hard to for your pup to find a comfortable position for sleeping. So sleep changes could be how to tell if a dog is in pain. If your dog is usually an easy sleeper, (most are), but suddenly appears restless and unable to lie still, pain may be the reason why. But note that a dog in pain may also sleep more than usual. And sleeping more than usual is one of the signs your dog is depressed.
Blinking and squinting
Eye injuries can cause varying levels of pain, and discomfort, for your dog. If you notice him blinking, squinting, tearing up, or pawing at his eye, he may have a corneal abrasion, eyelid issues (called entropion), glaucoma, conjunctivitis, or more obscure types of eye diseases. Talk to your veterinarian.