7 Behaviors that Indicate that Your Dog's in Pain

Pain in dogs can trigger certain unwanted behaviors in a pet. Find out about the behaviors that indicate that your dog's in pain.
7 Behaviors that Indicate that Your Dog's in Pain
Sebastian Ramirez Ocampo

Written and verified by the veterinarian and zootechnician Sebastian Ramirez Ocampo.

Last update: 17 August, 2023

According to the International Association for the Study of Pain, pain can be defined as a negative sensory and emotional experience that affects the health and well-being of companion animals. However, identifying that your dog’s in pain can be a challenge, as they don’t act or respond in the same way to an ailment as humans do.

For this reason, we invite you to review a series of signs of canine discomfort. These signs – ranging from appetite changes to exaggerated aggressiveness – will help you understand a little better what’s happening to your pet. Don’t miss this content!

Pain: A sensation shared by all animals

From a clinical point of view, pain is nothing more than a physiological response of the body, which announces the presence of a potentially harmful stimulus. In other words, it could be seen as a warning that something is wrong. In essence, its function is protective.

Every animal with a central nervous system has the capacity to feel pain because nerve endings – called nociceptors – perceive pain. According to an article in the journal Veterinary Medicine, these pain receptors are located in different parts of the body:

  • Skin
  • Muscles
  • Joints
  • Dental pulp
  • Cornea
  • Meninges
  • The wall of some organs

As stated by the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) in its guide for the recognition, evaluation, and treatment of pain, two types of pain can be recognized:

  • Acute pain: This is pain that occurs immediately. Its purpose is to quickly modify the animal’s behavior to avoid or minimize potential harm. It can be caused by a specific injury or disease such as cuts, fractures, burns, or corneal ulcers.
  • Chronic pain: Pain that persists for more than 3 months. Unlike acute pain, chronic pain doesn’t have a biological purpose or a clear endpoint. It occurs in diseases such as osteoarthritis, hip dysplasia, and cancer.

How do you know if a dog’s in pain?

A dog protecting looking up and growling.

According to the above, one might think that it’s easy to identify that your dog’s in pain because the origin or cause of the pain becomes evident. However, there are acute diseases that cause pain, such as pancreatitis or gastric torsion, that aren’t visible to the naked eye.

In fact, a study in the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine suggests that, like humans, canines can also suffer from migraine episodes. Therefore, it’s important that – as a guardian – you know the following 7 signs that your dog’s in pain.

1. Aggressiveness

This is perhaps the most common sign that your dog’s in pain. It occurs as a defensive act of pets to avoid at all costs contact with people or animals that trigger the painful stimulus.

Pain observed in both chronic and acute diseases and is characterized by a drastic change in the behavior of the sufferer.

In particular, dogs that were previously sociable and friendly may adopt aggressive behaviors such as biting or growling when approached. There may also be cases of dogs with a bad temperament that manifest exacerbated aggression.

For example, as discussed in the paper Pain-related aggression in dogs: 12 clinical cases, dogs that don’t show previous aggressive behavior tend to be more impulsive and adopt defensive body postures in the face of painful stimuli. While, in the same context, dogs with a bad temperament express their aggressiveness with greater intensity.

2. Fear

In this case, dogs that are suffering from or have suffered from pain create associations between traumatic experiences and negative stimuli, resulting in a fear response to specific situations. In fact, as explained in a publication in the journal Animals, fear can remain even in the absence of pain, as the pet can predict a similar situation in the same contexts.

Dogs that develop this behavior may be more cautious and quiet at home.

In addition, they show signs of fear – for no apparent reason – of objects, people, animals, or scenarios, to which they wouldn’t usually react in this way. A study in the journal Companion Animal supports this association. In this research, it was reported that two canines suffered from fear of certain unconventional stimuli. In both cases, actions taken to resolve the fear didn’t work.

However, after clinical examination, they were diagnosed with musculoskeletal conditions that caused pain. Once analgesic treatment was instituted and the fear triggers were resolved, the patients recovered completely.

3. Anxiety

According to the Animals journal article cited above, dogs in pain may also exhibit anxiety. This can be expressed by behavioral changes such as the following:

  • Hyperactivity
  • Constant panting
  • Excessive barking
  • Destruction of household objects, especially when left alone

In addition, according to this publication, dogs that experience chronic pain are more likely to suffer from anxiety. In addition to this, it’s suggested that, as in humans, a phenomenon known as “cognitive bias” may occur.

In this, say the authors, dogs with an additional source of anxiety – such as separation anxiety – have an exaggerated response to neutral stimuli or unrealistic sources of pain, which further worsens the condition. That is, they have a negative or pessimistic view of their environment. However, with proper treatment, it usually resolves.

4. Eating disorders

This is one of the most common signs associated with pain in dogs. It’s related to the discomfort produced by different chronic and acute diseases that lead to anorexia. It can be the result of specific pains such as a mouth injury or tooth fracture, or systemic diseases such as pancreatitis, gastroenteritis, or gastric torsion.

The animal can lose its appetite completely or only consume food that’s very appetizing. Likewise, pain can make the dog unable to move properly, as in the case of hip dysplasia. Therefore, the animal will choose not to go to where its food is.

5. Compulsive behaviors

Certain situations that produce stress, anxiety, and conflict in dogs can lead to the appearance of “vices” or abnormal behaviors, which have no function whatsoever.

As we have seen before, pain -especially when it is chronic- can trigger this type of sensations in pets, which leads to the appearance of such repetitive behaviors.

For example, according to the article Pain and Problem Behavior in Cats and Dogs, excessive and continuous licking of the limbs or tail may be an indication of joint pain. As the authors state, this may be due to the animal directing its attention to the area that’s causing the discomfort.

Similarly, another of the compulsive behaviors reported occurs when the sick dog adopts a “stargazing” position. In this state, the animal presents an upward elevation of the head and neck, with its gaze fixed on the ceiling.

This position is associated with gastrointestinal problems such as erosive gastritis with reflux esophagitis.

The behavior known as “fly biting” can also originate, in which the dog observes something non-existent that it intends to bite. Again, it’s seen in gastric diseases.

A dog licking its paw.
Frequent licking of the carpal area may indicate joint pain. This behavior can lead to other health problems such as dermatitis. Credit: iStockphoto.

6. Sleep disturbances

There’s a direct relationship between episodes of pain and a pet’s inability to sleep well. You can observe how the dog doesn’t get a good night’s rest and wanders around the house, looking for attention. Or, on the contrary, it stays in bed more than usual.

It’s possible that these alterations occur when a dog of any age is experiencing acute or chronic pain. However, a publication in the Journal of The American Veterinary Medical Association suggests that older dogs are more likely to manifest rest-related disorders.

7. Inappropriate defecation and urination

Because of pain – especially when it is chronic – your dog may choose not to go to the place where it’s supposed to relieve itself. Again, the researchers of the study Pain and Problem Behavior in Cats and Dogs report that this is associated with musculoskeletal problems and joint pain that make it difficult to access these areas. The problem usually resolves with medically indicated therapy.

What to do if you think your dog’s in pain?

Seeing a pet under these conditions can be distressing for its guardians. However, it’s important to keep in mind that one shouldn’t resort to self-medication to treat pain in dogs. In this regard, giving medication empirically can aggravate the situation or the disease that’s causing the discomfort.

On the contrary, if any of these behavioral changes occur, we must go to a trained veterinarian. Regarding management, a paper in the Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association states that acute pain can be treated with NSAIDs such as meloxicam or opioids such as tramadol.

For chronic pain, the same medications can be used, along with strategies such as environmental modification, weight reduction, and physical therapy. In addition, other unconventional treatments, such as acupuncture, can be beneficial in the management of different types of pain.

Watch for signs of pain in dogs

Now that you know the main behaviors associated with pain in dogs, it’s your duty to prevent your pet from suffering exaggeratedly from an ailment. Keeping them in mind will help to identify an illness in time and thus provide timely attention.

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All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

The contents of My Animals are written for informational purposes. They can't replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment from a professional. In the case of any doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.