Dogs are amazing creatures. More than any other non-primate animal on earth, dogs have learned how to communicate with humans. Who hasn’t had their dog stare at them when they want to play, get a cookie, or go outside for a bathroom break?
Dogs are great at telling us when they want something. And, if we pay attention, dogs also give us signs when they aren’t feeling well. Apart from the obvious signs of sickness—such as vomiting, diarrhea, coughing, not eating, or sneezing—dogs give us subtle signs to tell us when they are uncomfortable. These signs can seem innocent, such as “slowing down,” sleeping more, having less interest in activities they used to enjoy or having overall lower energy. Still, sometimes it can be hard to tell how your dog is feeling because he or she can’t speak English.
Many pet owners ask me if dogs feel joint pain like humans do. My answer is yes, they most definitely do; it just looks and sounds different than a human suffering from joint pain.
You see, in a dog’s brain, they are either fixed or broken. Dogs feel broken when something occurs that causes acute pain, such as a broken bone, a torn ligament, a cut paw pad (ow!), or a fractured tooth. All of these injuries send signals of acute pain to your dog’s brain and then your dog acts accordingly by limping, crying out in pain, or in the case of a painful tooth, refusing food or dropping food out of his mouth.
What Does Chronic Pain Look Like?
Chronic pain secondary to long-standing conditions such as arthritis looks different than acute pain. When the pain comes on slowly, the dog doesn’t notice it as much and adjusts to what he or she thinks is “the new normal” of chronic discomfort. These dogs don’t act “broken” or cry out in pain—because they don’t know better! They think how they feel is normal. Chronic discomfort in dogs is much harder to detect. A dog who has chronic pain due to arthritis may sleep more, act grouchy, lag behind on walks, sit down on walks, pant more, seem less interested in games, and slow down. Chronic pain may result in a loss of muscle, a stiff gait, and an unwillingness to jump into cars.
When I examine canine patients, I can tell if they’re in pain based on how they react to specific orthopedic manipulations. Pet owners are often surprised when I point out signs of pain in their pet’s physical exam. After the exam, I help pet owners understand how these signs indicate a chronic pain issue and I explain how these behaviors are often subtle and hard to detect.
How can you tell if your dog is suffering in silence?
Talk with your local veterinarian about how your pet is doing at home and make sure to discuss any changes in their behavior or routine. Your veterinarian can also perform a full physical exam or take X-rays to evaluate your dog’s joints. The most important thing I explain to dog owners is to not beat themselves up for not seeing the signs earlier. Signs of chronic pain are hard to detect!
You’ve learned your dog has chronic pain. What now?
I recommend talking with your veterinarian about a trial with pain medication, as it can offer an excellent window into your dog’s health. If your dog acts more like his or her old self on pain medication, then you know there’s chronic pain that can be addressed with medication, surgery, or other alternative therapies.