Melissa Mazzeo Melissa is an author, editor, and best friend to Phoebe (pictured) and Finian, both rescued Chihuahua mixes.

The Hidden Signs of Pain in Dogs

8 min read

Your dog could be quietly suffering in pain right now, and because he is unable to tell you that he hurts, you might not recognize his distress. Whimpering, yelping, and limping are the obvious signs that your dog is injured, but many signs of pain in dogs are far more subtle.

You may not recognize that your dog has a problem for months or even years after it starts, and failing to seek treatment for the source of your dog’s pain in a timely manner could lead to permanent damage and loss of function. Learning to recognize the hidden signs that your dog is experiencing pain is essential for his good health and quality of life.

Common Misconceptions about Dog Pain

In order to recognize that a dog is in pain, a dog owner must first understand that his dog feels pain in the same manner as humans. Until recently, vet schools taught that dogs have a diminished capacity to feel pain and that dogs have a high tolerance for pain. Many pet owners share this misperception, along with the belief that pain can effectively prevent a dog from reinjuring himself or aggravating an injury.

As attitudes and understanding of pain in dogs have evolved, most modern vets have abandoned the school of thought that any level of pain in dogs is to be ignored or left untreated. Can you imagine your doctor expecting you to recover from surgery without the use of pain medication? Of course not! But until recently, the field of canine pain management was virtually non-existent. Some vets still send dogs home without pain medications after spaying or neutering, and this can lead dog owners to underestimate the pain that dogs experience.

The Dangers of “Perception Bias”

You want your dog to be well and happy, and these feelings can cause you to fail to recognize that your dog is in pain. Vets call this effect “perception bias,” and the concept is simple. You don’t want to see that your dog is in pain, so you don’t. Perhaps you don’t want to have to take your dog to the vet, or you don’t want the vet to give you bad news regarding your dog’s health. Any of these feelings can lead to a state of denial in a dog owner, who would otherwise never intentionally ignore his dog’s suffering.

Sometimes, the onset of an illness is so gradual that an owner fails to recognize that his dog is in chronic pain. A dog’s behavioral changes caused by chronic pain can develop so slowly that they become the “new normal.” The best way to overcome this phenomenon is to specifically consider your dog’s prior behaviors, such as his activity level from 6 months ago. Some dog experts even recommend videotaping your dog periodically so that you have a reference for comparison.

Misperceptions about the aging process in dogs can also cause dog owners to fail to recognize pain in their dogs. Arthritis is common in aging dogs, and arthritis pain can greatly reduce a dog’s activity level. Unfortunately, many dog owners view this as an unavoidable condition of aging as opposed to the symptom of a disease. If a young dog were exhibiting the same changes, a dog owner would likely seek veterinary attention, but because the dog is older, the dog owner accepts the changes as normal. A dog owner may think his dog is slowing down naturally when in reality his dog is suffering from a condition that can be treated and resolved.

Sometimes a dog’s breed can influence his owner’s ability to recognize health problems. Because some health conditions are common to a specific breed, a dog owner may accept symptoms as normal for his dog and fail to realize that they are problematic and painful. For example, bulldog breeds often suffer from breathing problems due to the shape of their noses. One study showed that bulldog owners were less likely to report breathing problems to their vets. The reason? The owners considered breathing problems “normal” for bulldogs.

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Confusing Signs from Your Dog

When a dog is in pain, he will often avoid the activities that cause him pain. For example, a dog with a bad tooth may avoid eating. When he eats less, he hurts less. This creates a cycle in which the dog feels less pain and shows less pain.

Similarly, some dogs react to pain by withdrawing and sleeping more. In such cases, a dog owner may not notice the pain in his dog because the dog is not fussing. Recognizing the absence of a behavior is much more difficult than recognizing a new behavior, such as limping.

Sometimes, a dog will react to pain by seeking extra attention from his owner. A dog owner can easily misinterpret the behavior for happiness. In addition, a dog owner may enjoy the extra attention from his dog while never understanding the dog’s efforts to express discomfort.

In other instances, the dog’s relationship with his owner can relieve his feelings of pain. A dog experiences an adrenaline rush when his owner comes home from work after a long day or when he engages in his favorite activity, such as fetching. The adrenaline will overpower the dog’s pain, and the dog will appear normal to his owner. While your dog may be suffering from pain most of the day, you are unlikely to notice if he jumps up and down at the sight of his favorite toy.

Pain and Erratic Sleep Habits

If your dog is suffering from chronic pain, he may feel exhausted and require more rest. Likewise, he may experience new sleeping patterns. When your dog sleeps, his joints can stiffen and cause him to feel pressure and pain that he would not experience or notice while moving.

In order to alleviate the pain, your dog may frequently adjust his sleeping position or change the locations where he sleeps. In addition, your dog may get up and down frequently during periods of sleeping, and he may pace around the house before he tries to rest again. His inability to sleep soundly for extended periods of time may lead to more daytime napping. If your dog seems like he can’t get comfortable when he’s trying to rest, he’s probably in pain.

Changes in Exercise Habits

A reluctance to exercise can be considered a sign of laziness or aging in a dog. However, an active dog who appears to lose interest in running and jumping may actually be protecting himself from pain. The impact of landing puts pressure on a dog’s joints, and it can be extremely painful for a dog with a joint disease such as arthritis. If your active dog becomes sedentary either suddenly or gradually, he may be protecting himself from joint pain.
Sometimes the reluctance to jump affects more than exercise. For example, a dog with joint pain may quit jumping on his favorite couch because it is too high. Likewise, loading in a vehicle may become too difficult for a dog in pain. If your dog seems to lose interest in a favorite piece of furniture or riding in your car, pain may be the cause.

When Your Dog Avoids a Slick Floor

Some dogs have a lifelong phobia of walking on uncarpeted floors. However, a sudden refusal to walk on tile or wood floors may be a sign that your dog is in pain. Although the behavior may be confused with fear or disobedience, your dog may be protecting his joints from stress.

Why would walking on a smooth floor be painful for your dog? Because he can’t get traction. The pads of your dog’s feet are smooth; therefore, he uses his toenails to get traction when he walks. A slick floor prevents your dog from using his nails to grip, so he must rely on his strength and balance. While this is an easy task for a healthy dog, a dog that has a weak leg or painful joint may realize that he is vulnerable to falling on a slippery floor. His refusal to step off your carpet and onto your smooth floor is his way of guarding himself against injury and more pain.

Changes in Sitting and Standing

When a healthy dog stands up, he starts with his back legs. However, a dog who has hip dysplasia or arthritis in his hind legs will alter his method of standing to avoid pain. If your dog uses his front legs to pull himself up, he is probably reacting to pain in his back legs. A dog who repeats this motion for an extended period of time may even have overdeveloped muscles in his front legs and chest.

The action of sitting down is painful for dogs with joint diseases, too, and often a dog in pain will make repeated attempts at sitting down before he is able to complete the act. Similarly, lying down can become problematic for a dog in pain. Most dogs turn in a circle several times before they find the perfect spot to lie down. If your dog starts and stops the circling behavior repeatedly, he is probably doing so because he knows his joints will hurt when he finally lies down.

Avoiding the Stairs

Unlike walking on horizontal surfaces, climbing up and down stairs distributes a dog’s weight unevenly on his front and back legs. A dog in pain may be reluctant to use stairs, and this behavior is easily misconstrued as fearful or disobedient.

Many dog owners attempt to correct the behavior by luring or commanding their dogs to climb stairs. A dog in pain may take additional time before ascending, or he may get a running start and bunny hop up stairs. Some dogs react to their owners’ insistence that they climb stairs by barking, which is an expression of frustration. They want to please their owners, but they know that climbing the stairs will cause pain.

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Watch How Your Dog Walks

If your dog has arthritis pain, he will be reluctant to stretch and fully use his muscles, and he will also play and exercise less. Changes in physical activity can cause your dog’s muscles to atrophy, which is the weakening or wasting away of muscle mass. If you notice that your dog is losing muscle tone, he may be in pain.

Simply walking can feel excruciatingly painful for a dog with joint problems. A dog may compensate for the pain by lifting his limbs as little as possible when he walks. Although the change may not be noticeable to you, an examination of your dog’s toenails can reveal the problem. If your dog is not adequately lifting his feet when he walks, his nails will become scuffed and wear unevenly. Most likely, his middle two nails will be more worn than the outside ones.

Housetraining Setbacks

Many senior dogs experience housetraining issues, and some dog owners mistakenly believe that it is a normal part of the aging process. However, if your dog starts having “accidents” in the house, pain could be the cause. Even though your dog will still experience shame for having an accident in the house, he may not be able to move quickly enough to go outside in time.

If your dog is hurting, he may not feel like getting up and finding you to let him outside. He may dread using the stairs to go outside. If outdoor temperatures are extreme, he may want to avoid exposing his joints to the weather. Thus, your dog’s regression with housetraining could be the result of avoiding pain.

Pain Can Cause Aggression

Perhaps no change in dog behavior is more upsetting than when a loving, docile dog becomes aggressive. When it occurs in a senior dog, many people mistakenly associate the behavior as becoming grumpy as part of the aging process.

If your dog starts showing his teeth, growling, or snapping at his dog friends in your household, you should recognize that he is probably acting out of pain. He uses the aggressive behaviors to signal to other dogs and sometimes people that the actions in which they previously engaged are no longer acceptable. Your dog may even bite to protect a sensitive body part from the pain of interaction with another animal or person. Such behavioral changes always require a consultation with a veterinarian, who can help you understand if your dog’s acts of aggression are behavioral or a response to undiagnosed pain.

Know Your Dog
Living in pain diminishes your dog’s quality of life and his overall health, but recognizing your dog’s pain can be challenging. The signals that your dog is in pain can easily be misinterpreted as bad behavior or normal for his age or breed.

Every dog is unique, and dogs express pain with a wide variety of behaviors. The best rule of thumb for recognizing pain in your dog involves being aware of behavioral changes, even when they are gradual. You know your dog better than anyone, and your vet depends on you to educate him on what is normal for your dog.

If your dog seems to lose interest in activities that have always made him happy, he may be reacting to undiagnosed pain. Likewise, personality changes are strong indicators of hidden pain. Because your dog can’t express his pain with words, you have the challenge of interpreting his nonverbal clues.

Early detection and treatment of injuries and illnesses are the best tools for protecting your dog against permanent health damage. Alerting your vet when you suspect that your dog may be reacting in pain will allow you and your dog to have many happy years together.

Melissa Mazzeo
Melissa Mazzeo Melissa is an author, editor, and best friend to Phoebe (pictured) and Finian, both rescued Chihuahua mixes.