As a pet parent, you know firsthand the deep bond that exists between you and your beloved dog. When the people we love hurt, we hurt – and it’s no different with the members of our family that just happen to be covered in fur.
I’m confident that if I asked each client that came through my office the question, “Would it hurt you, if you found out your dog was in pain?” that the answer would be a resounding “YES!” But the truth is, how our dogs actually communicate that they are in pain is completely different than most people think.
Humans in Pain vs. Animals in Pain
As pet owners, we’ve all experienced that excruciating moment when we accidentally step on our dog’s paw and they let out a sharp yelp and run off (which is subsequently followed by twenty minutes of us trailing them around the house, begging forgiveness). But ask yourself – was this a cry of pain, or of fear? If the pain had not been so startling, would they have cried out?
In animals, pain is not always as obvious as it is in us humans. When we’re in pain, we groan over our aching stomach, we moan about our headache as we rub our temples, we complain and complain about our aching back, and then we complain about it some more. And the thing is – consciously or otherwise – on some level we expect our pets to do the same.
The Number One Mistake Pet Owners Make When It Comes to Pain
The biggest mistake pet owners make is to assume that if their animal is in pain, they will vocalize it. We bond with our beloved canine companions so deeply, that we in a sense “think they are humans” and therefore assume they will show or communicate signs of pain the same way we do. We expect them to cry, whine, whimper, or complain.
But in reality, many of the signs that a dog is in pain are much more subtle, and some will even try to hide their pain as a natural survival instinct. The responsibility to learn what these signs are, then, falls to us.
Learning What to Look For
One of the best things we can do to better connect with our canine companions is to learn how to think, look, and listen more like dogs, especially when it comes to pain evaluation. In situations where the pain is more chronic, like bone or joint pain such as arthritis, this can potentially save your dog years of suffering in which their condition otherwise might have gone untreated.
Here are the top five signs to look for to ensure your beloved pet never has to suffer in silence.
1. Slowing Down
As our dogs age, we assume that they inevitably “slow down.” Though this may be true in some circumstances, it isn’t always the complete story. In many cases, dogs will slow down because they are in chronic pain. Over time, dealing with this day-to-day pain begins to wear them out, and they naturally begin to slow down as a result.
2. Sleeping More or Longer
Humans do this one too. Have you ever had terrible body aches from a cold or a debilitating migraine? All you want to do is stay in bed. The key here is to notice anything that is different from the norm in your dog’s sleeping behavior. If you notice they are sleeping more, especially in the morning, or go through a sort of ritualistic stretching behavior before getting up that they didn’t used to do, it may be an early warning sign of discomfort.
3. Slow to Sit Down or Get Up
For dogs that are in severe pain, even a completely untrained eye can tell they are struggling to get up or down. But to identify the subtle and early changes that may or may not be occurring, watch your pet carefully – you know them best. Are they doing anything they didn’t before, such as thinking about sitting, “thumping” themselves down, or “walking” themselves into a lying down position? Are they more hesitant to get up when you ask them to? These are all indications your dog is suffering.
4. Avoiding or Having Difficulty with Stairs
For dogs in pain, what was once the normal, easy task of going up and down stairs quickly becomes a challenge. In the early stages of chronic pain, you may notice that they slightly hesitate prior to going up the stairs – almost as if they need to muster the energy or convince themselves that they can actually do it. In the later stages, they may have to “bunny hop,” using both hind legs together to push off a step. If you notice this in your dog, there is definitely a problem.
5. Reluctant to Go on Walks or Not Walking as Far
Most of us walk our dogs on a regular basis, and most of our dogs will regularly lose their minds over the prospect of a walk. Reluctance to go means something is not right. Dogs in pain may gradually not want to walk as far as they used to, and may even sit down and quit mid-walk. If you let your dog out into a fenced yard instead of taking them on walks, watch to see if they are as active in the yard as usual. If not, this may be a sign that something is amiss.
After years of evaluating and listening to both my patients and their parents, I’ve come to understand these as the five most common signs our dogs use to tell us they are in pain. You can learn more about the other ways our pets communicate pain to us and what you can do to help in my book Dogs Don’t Cry.
If you notice your dog is displaying one or more of these signs, I encourage you to make an appointment with your veterinarian to further investigate the issue. As loving parents, now is the time to change the way we look for signs of pain in our furry family members, learning to listen to them more carefully with open minds and open hearts.