6 ways to know if your dog is in pain

Because dogs can’t talk, it can be hard for us to understand how they’re feeling. By understanding something about canine body language and behavior, you’ll be in a better position to know when your dog might be experiencing pain or discomfort.

No one likes to see a dog in pain. Whether our dogs have aching joints or are undergoing an uncomfortable procedure at the vet’s office, we feel their pain as if they’re an extension of ourselves. But sometimes, a dog’s pain isn’t immediately obvious to us. “Dogs are very stoic and can conceal the fact that they are hurt or in pain,” says dog trainer Cat Saunders. Because of this, we need to learn how to recognize the subtle signs or behaviors that could be signalling pain or discomfort in our dogs, so that we can do something about it before it gets worse. Let’s take a look at six common signs that could indicate your dog is in pain.

Sign #1: Lack of appetite

For many dogs, food is the most exciting thing in the world. So when they all of a sudden seem uninterested at dinner time, or don’t eat as much as usual, it could be a sign that something isn’t right. Any form of pain could result in decreased appetite. If the dog’s limbs are painful, he might not want to get up and walk to the food bowl. Dental disease can make it painful and difficult for the dog to eat, while an upset stomach or nausea will affect his appetite. Any decrease in your dog’s appetite warrants a trip to the vet for a check-up.

If the dog’s limbs are painful, he might not want to get up and walk to the food bowl.

Sign #2: Aggression

If you’ve ever tried to help an injured dog, you may have experienced first-hand that aggression can sometimes be a response to pain. Hiding, grumpiness, growling or any other change in a dog’s usual disposition can be cause for concern. “If the dog thinks you are going to touch him where it hurts, he may react defensively,” says veterinarian Dr. Karen Davies. “It’s important to know that no one disease or pain reaction will make a dog more likely to snap than another. Pain is pain and the dog’s ability to tolerate it is an individual thing.”

Sign #3: Reluctance to exercise

Does your dog go crazy with excitement when she gets to chase her ball? Does she accompany you for a jog each day? If so, you’ll probably be quick to deduce that all is not well when she suddenly seems disinterested in exercise, becomes lethargic or is simply unable to move as freely as usual. A lack of energy is a fairly obvious indicator that something’s wrong, and that your dog could be in some kind of pain or discomfort.  Once again, any unexpected reluctance to get active should be investigated by your vet.

Sign #4: Breathing changes

The way your dog breathes is something you may never pay any attention to until it changes. Of course, you’d expect him to be sucking in big breaths after a sprint or extended period of exercise, but if breathing doesn’t return to normal fairly soon, there could be cause for concern. Any change in breathing rate, depth or rhythm that doesn’t return to normal reasonably quickly is a red flag, along with any change in how it sounds. Changes in breathing can be associated with pain as well as lung or heart disease.

Sign #5: Vocalization 

While it’s true that dogs can’t verbally tell us they are in pain, they can still use a range of sounds to communicate how they are feeling. “Some will whimper, others will pant and the odd dog will scream or howl,” Dr. Karen says. If your dog displays this type of reaction when touched in a specific area, or when using a certain part of his body, it can be an indication of pain. “If he cries trying to get up on the couch, it could be an indication of spinal, limb or abdominal pain, as these are the areas being stretched out. Alternatively, an animal with high blood pressure or a brain tumor feels the pain in his head, and it may be exacerbated by noise or bright lights, or even the sudden movement of other things around him.”

“If he cries trying to get up on the couch, it could be an indication of spinal, limb or abdominal pain.”

Sign #6: Excessive grooming

Have you noticed your dog paying particular attention to grooming a specific part of his body, such as a paw or joint? It could be his way of massaging a painful area. Excessive grooming may particularly be an issue with joint pain; licking the area helps relieve the discomfort, and is similar to how we might rub a sore knee or elbow. If your dog is constantly licking one part of his body, it’s a sign that’s something bothering him and require medical attention. This is especially the case if the skin or hair is becoming discolored from over-grooming. While excessive grooming can be a behavioral issue, it can also signify skin disease, an injury, or a joint problem such as arthritis.

Recognizing signs of pain can be tricky

Dr. Karen and Cat both agree that some dogs are very good at concealing pain. “If the pain is chronic in nature, some will learn to tolerate it and get on with life,” she says. The signs a dog does show will vary with the location and source of the pain. For example, your pooch may not go upstairs in bounding leaps anymore, but rather one step at a time.

Once you know your dog, you should be able to realize when his behavior is normal or completely out of character. “If he’s not getting up and greeting you at the door when you arrive home, or tucking into its meal at night with the usual enthusiasm, there could be a problem,” says Dr. Karen. “Any behavior that is out of the ordinary should be considered, and veterinary attention sought, particularly if the changes, however mild, lasts more than a day.”

There are plenty of clues to look for that might indicate your dog is not feeling his best. Even if the signs are subtle, it’s wise make an appointment with the vet and have your dog checked over. Chances are, the problem will turn out to be minor and will be easy to treat; either way, you’ll be taking steps to alleviate your best friend’s discomfort, and that’s the most important thing.


Varsha Bang is a freelance writer and dog lover who lives in India. She shares her home with two canine companions.