Dogs may not be able to tell us when they are in pain. But there are clues we can look for.
Knowing how to tell if your dog is in pain is a very important part of responsible dog ownership. As humans we experience all sorts of pain, from a mild headache to acute appendicitis and angina. We are lucky enough to be able to do something about it, such as take tablets or consult a doctor. There is no doubt that dogs experience pain, too. However they are unable to tell us about it, so it’s up to us to look for clues.
Signs of dog pain will vary, depending on the type and origin of the pain. It can be mild, moderate or severe, acute or chronic and may originate from the skin, a limb or from internal organs.
Causes of pain in dogs
Common causes of general pain in dogs include trauma, cancer, inflammation, poisoning and infection. It can also be more localized; the result of an abscess or foreign body, skin condition, ear infection, meningitis, tooth root abscess, gingivitis or an insect sting. Problems in the neck or back such as disc disease, osteoarthritis and nerve entrapment can cause pain, as can arthritis or fracture of the legs, peritonitis, hepatitis and kidney infection.
Understanding the signs of dog pain
Humans describe different pains as sharp, local, diffuse, aching, gnawing and burning. With chronic pain they can become depressed and lose weight.
Tell tale signs of dog pain can vary:
Dogs in acute pain may:
- be restless,
- become ‘wide-eyed’
- may growl when approached and show aggression.
Others become quiet, withdrawn and miserable. They may bite, lick or scratch the affected area.
They will also attempt to withdraw from the pain and this is sometimes a useful sign of dog pain for a vet, especially with lameness. When the painful area is examined the dog may react by crying out, wincing, pulling the leg away and, occasionally, snapping at the vet. Some dogs whimper, others whine. Dogs in discomfort will be reluctant to move and may move slowly or stiffly, guarding the painful area.
Chronic pain such as arthritis can produce loss of appetite and weight, lethargy, groaning, whimpering and depression. At night the dog may appear restless, constantly pacing, standing up and lying down again in an effort to get into a comfortableposition.
Knowing how to tell if your dog is in pain might only come through close observation of a change in your dog’s behaviour and may be the only indication of pain, so you need to be vigilant.
Messages to the Brain
Pain can indicate that tissue injury has occurred and is one of the earliest signs of disease. There are pain receptors throughout the body and these communicate with the brain via nerve fibers. Pain receptors are stimulated in various ways, by crushing, by heat as in burns, by stretching as with distended abdominal organs and by chemical factors.
Inflammation plays a significant part in pain sensation. When inflammation occurs many chemical agents are released and these strongly activate the pain receptors. The brain can modify the pain sensation to some extent. Parts of the brain produce analgesic agents called endorphins which are thought to produce a state of emotional indifference to pain.
Treating your dog’s pain
Once you know how to tell if your dog is in pain planning treatment to relieve their discomfort becomes more straightforward. Analgesic drugs are used to relieve pain and different analgesics alleviate pain in different ways. The choice of drug will depend to some extent on the location, cause and duration of the pain.
Some act centrally on the brain. These drugs include morphine. pethidine and buprenorphine which are potent but have a relatively short time of action and can cause sedation. They are ideal for acute pain such as a broken leg or after an operation.
As inflammation contributes such a lot to pain, drugs that reduce inflammation make excellent painkillers. Steroids are anti-inflammatory but they also have many undesirable side-effects. so instead we have a large group of very useful drugs called the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
(NSAID). These include paracetamol, ibuprofen. aspirin. meloxicam and carprofen.
The NSAIDs are useful for short and long-term use. They are given after operations but some can also be taken daily for months or years as in the treatment of arthritis. NSAIDs work by blocking the effects of enzymes that produce pain. The pain eases and inflammation subsides allowing your dog to move more comfortably. These should only be prescribed by a vet.
Some of these drugs are much safer in dogs than others and vary in the severity of possible side-effects. All NSAIDs can cause gastric irritation and ulceration. However this is rarely seen with the more modern ones such as carprofen. There is also a risk of renal damage with long-term use.
The metabolism of these drugs varies considerably between species. So while humans can take aspirin and paracetamol with relative safety, these medicines are metabolized and excreted much more slowly by dogs and if given regularly can accumulate, causing liver damage and other problems. So while it is usually safe to give your dog paracetamol on a one-off basis (preferably after speaking to your vet) it should never be given regularly.
Although NSAIDs are commonly used by people to ease pain, it’s not as simple as running to the medicine cabinet to give your pooch the same pills you use. Human NSAIDs such as Ibuprofen are toxic for dogs and should never be given.
Always check with your vet before giving any treatment as there are some health conditions for example where paracetamol might be harmful . However, if you know your dog is fit and well otherwise, it is usually ok to give a single dose of aspirin or paracetamol.
The dose for aspirin is 10 mgs per kilo body weight and, for paracetamol, 20mgs per kilo body weight .
Analgesics commonly prescribed by vets include Metacam, Zenecarp, Ketofen,
Finadyne and Phenylbutazone.
Do’s and Dont’s
- Do give Analgesia as prescribed by your Vet
- Do mention any vomiting or loss of appetite to your vet
- Don’t Give your dog your headache pills or other painkillers
- Don’t give your dog more than one dose of paracetamol
How to tell if your dog is in pain and prevent suffering
Acute pain in dogs is usually recognised but chronic low-grade pain such as that from arthritic joints or a sore, infected mouth is often not identified by owners. Changes such as the dog slowing up, becoming reluctant to exercise and being stiff after rest are often attributed to old age.
To prevent your dog suffering pain unnecessarily, do have them checked over regularly by your vet and maybe try a short course of painkillers as prescribed by them. Only then can you see
how much of the dog’s behaviour is due to pain. Youmight be surprised at how many older dogs acquire a new lease of life once their painful joints are under control.
The content of this article is not intended to be accepted as a substitute for professional veterinary advice. Please consult a qualified veterinarian if you have any questions about your dog’s health.