Is my dog in pain? What to look for and how to listen.

Is my dog in pain? What to look for and how to listen.

(As featured on Grey Matters Blog for the Grey Muzzle Organization)

As pet parents we’ve all most likely been in situations where our dogs have gotten hurt. Whether you accidentally tripped over your dog or stepped on their paw carelessly, you’ve probably heard your dog let out a quick yelp or cry and run off. Was it pain or fear? Either way how did you feel in that moment? Does the word horrible come to mind!

We all love our dogs and we would NEVER want to inflict pain on them or hurt them in any way, shape or form. As humans, most of us associate pain with some kind of vocal response; a cry, yelp, whine, whimper etc. God knows when we are in pain we do all of the above and more…like complain to everyone around us. But when it comes to our dogs, how they communicate when they are in pain is completely different than what most people think.

Just this week in my practice a 5-month old boxer puppy named “Riley” came in partially weight bearing on her left front leg. Her dad told me that she started limping over the weekend, and he had no idea why. She never cried or complained. He never saw any kind of accident or trauma. She even took a 4-hour car ride with him to visit his children in Boston without a complaint. When I examined Riley my only finding was that she had heat coming from the left front carpus (wrist) and when I pressed on the joint she tried to move away from me. She never cried once during my exam. My obvious next step was to take an x-ray of her leg, which to my surprise; I found that she had a complete fracture of both the radius and ulna. Long story short Riley will be fine. The bone was not displaced therefore I splinted the leg, immobilizing the joints above and below, then sent her home on pain medications with a re-check in 2 weeks for a cast change.

In acute, extreme situations such as Riley’s where she actually had a broken bone, our rational minds come to an acceptance that yes, Riley must be in pain. If you have ever broken any bones then you would know…this hurts BIG TIME! Yet Riley never cried once.

So what about situations where the pain is more chronic, such as a dog who is dealing with chronic arthritis? Are these dogs actually experiencing pain? And if so why don’t most pet owners “pick up” on it?

For over ten years in my rehabilitation practice I’ve asked the same question to my clients whose dogs where diagnosed with arthritis. Do you think your dog is in pain? And 90% of the time, they say no. When I ask them how do they know? The answer is always the same….because they never cry or whimper.

It took me a few years and a lot of hyper-focusing on this issue to finally come to the realization that the problem is NOT in how our dogs communicate, the real issue is that we are not actually “listening” to them correctly. We are listening with human eyes and ears, and not with dog eyes and ears.

Then I discovered this one very big word that explained it all called anthropomorphism.

Anthropomorphism is defined in the Webster’s Dictionary as follows:
“… described or thought of as being like human beings in appearance, behavior. For example;
considering animals, objects, etc., as having human qualities.”

What this means is that we try to interpret our pet’s emotions or behaviors as if they were human. In other words, because we love and bond with our dogs on such a high level we in a sense “think they are humans” and therefore expect our pets to show or communicate signs of pain the same way humans do. We expect them to cry, whine, whimper, or complain. Yet the true reality is that they are dogs and not humans and therefore we should actually “think, look and listen” more like dogs if we truly want to connect with them. And when it comes to pain evaluation we should be the ones to actually learn how to listen to them.

After years of evaluating and listening to both my patients and their parents, I created a list of the most common signs or signals that our dogs use to tell us they are in pain, which I highlight in my new book called Dogs Don’t Cry. And because the vast majority of this communication is non-vocal I duly named them as “The Silent Signs of Dog Pain” specifically with relation to bone and joint pain.

Here is a list of the most common Silent Signs of Dog Pain:

  • Overall slowing down
  • Slow to get up or get down
  • Avoiding stairs or slow to go up stairs
  • Avoiding jumping into the car or onto beds or couches
  • Sleeping more and/or sleeping longer
  • Reluctance to go on walks or walking less than usual
  • Displaying a closed hind leg stance while standing
  • Displaying a wide front leg stance while standing or walking
  • Bunny hopping while walking, jogging or running
  • An obvious one…limping
  • Overall stiffness
  • Muscle atrophy/loss
  • Joint licking
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Behavioral changes such as detachment or uncharacteristic aggression
  • Other vocalizations such as groaning or grunting

Obviously some of these “Silent Signs” on an individual basis can be signals for problems other than just bone or joint pain alone, therefore if after reading this list you think your dog may be displaying one or more of these signs, I strongly encourage you to call and make an appointment with your veterinarian to discuss this issue.

My take away advice is this; as loving pet parents, NOW is this time for us to change the way we come to answer the question; Do you think your dog is in pain? In order for us to do this, WE need to actually LEARN how to LISTEN to our dogs more carefully with open-minds and open-hearts.

You can find my book, Dogs Don’t Cry, on Amazon. Click here to learn more. 100% of book sales are being donated directly to help senior dogs in rescue who are in need of pain management.