7 Behaviors that Indicate that Your Dog's in Pain
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:
- Dental pulp
- 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?
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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
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.It might interest you...
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.
- Alamrew, E., & Fesseha, H. (2021). Pain and Pain Management in Veterinary Medicine: A review. Veterinary Medicine Open Journal, 5 (3), 64-73. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/349251168_Pain_and_Pain_Management_in_Veterinary_Medicine_A_Review
- Camps, T., Amat, M., & Manteca, X. (2019). A Review of Medical Conditions and Behavioral Problems in Dogs and Cats. Animals: An Open Access Journal from MDPI, 9(12), 1133. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6941081/
- Camps, T., Amat, M., Mariotti, V, M., Le Brech, S., & Manteca X. (2012). Pain-related agression in dogs: 12 clinical cases. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 7 (2), 99-102. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1558787811001444
- Chapman, B. L., & Voith, V. L. (1990). Behavioral problems in old dogs: 26 cases (1984-1987). Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 196(6), 944–946. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2312394/
- Dewey, C. W., & Xie, H. (2021). The scientific basis of acupuncture for veterinary pain management: A review based on relevant literature from the last two decades. Open Veterinary Journal, 11(2), 203–209. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8288732/
- Gori, E., Lippi, I., Guidi, G., Perondi, F., Pierini, A., & Marchetti, V. (2019). Acute pancreatitis and acute kidney injury in dogs. Veterinary Journal (London, England: 1997), 245, 77–81. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1090023319300012?via%3Dihub
- Gruen, M. E., Lascelles, B. D. X., Colleran, E., Gottlieb, A., Johnson, J., Lotsikas, P., Marcellin-Little, D., & Wright, B. (2022). 2022 AAHA Pain Management Guidelines for Dogs and Cats. Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association, 58(2), 55–76. https://meridian.allenpress.com/jaaha/article-abstract/58/2/55/478141/2022-AAHA-Pain-Management-Guidelines-for-Dogs-and?redirectedFrom=fulltext
- Lindley, S. (2012). The effects of pain on behaviour and behavioural problems part 2: Fear and anxiety. Companion Animal, 17 (1), 55-58. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.2044-3862.2011.00115.x
- Mathews, K., Kronen, P. W., Lascelles, D., Nolan, A., Robertson, S., Steagall, P. V., Wright, B., & Yamashita, K. (2014). Guidelines for recognition, assessment and treatment of pain: WSAVA Global Pain Council members and co-authors of this document: The Journal of Small Animal Practice, 55(6), E10–E68. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jsap.12200
- Mills, D. S., Demontigny-Bédard, I., Gruen, M., Klinck, M. P., McPeake, K. J., Barcelos, A. M., Hewison, L., Van Haevermaet, H., Denenberg, S., Hauser, H., Koch, C., Ballantyne, K., Wilson, C., Mathkari, C. V., Pounder, J., Garcia, E., Darder, P., Fatjó, J., & Levine, E. (2020). Pain and Problem Behavior in Cats and Dogs. Animals: An Open Access Journal from MDPI, 10(2), 318. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7071134/#B46-animals-10-00318
- Neilson, J. C., Hart, B. L., Cliff, K. D., & Ruehl, W. W. (2001). Prevalence of behavioral changes associated with age-related cognitive impairment in dogs. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 218(11), 1787–1791. https://avmajournals.avma.org/view/journals/javma/218/11/javma.2001.218.1787.xml
- Plessas, I. N., Volk, H. A., & Kenny, P. J. (2013). Migraine-like episodic pain behavior in a dog: can dogs suffer from migraines? Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, 27 (5), 1034–1040. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jvim.12167