Is My Dog in Pain?

By: Christine New, DVM

TVMA Member
Dallas, Texas

Published May 2016

Subtle pain can be difficult to identify at home and is the reason for many phone calls to the emergency clinic. Pain can be chronic, such as arthritic pain, or more acute when associated with injuries. Acute pain tends to be more easily identified by owners, as it is usually associated with a marked change in your dog’s normal behavior. Some signs of pain (chronic or acute) may include the following:

  • Panting: If your pet is resting, has not had recent exercise and is not overheated, excessive panting at home is a common sign of pain.
  • Restlessness/agitation: Pacing, getting up quickly after sitting or lying down and refusing to jump on and off furniture or go up and down stairs can all be signs of musculoskeletal pain.
  • Reluctance to lie down: If there is reluctance to lie down, especially if the dog is only willing to put its front end down but keep its backend up in the air, this can be a sign of musculoskeletal or abdominal pain.
  • Trembling: If your pet does not have a history of anxiety disorders, trembling at home almost always indicates pain.
  • Sensitivity to touch: If your pet is not allowing you to pet him/her as normal or cries out when you touch a certain area, this is most likely due to pain.
  • Unexplained vocalization: Sudden vocalizations with no discernable cause warrant an examination.
  • Holding tail in a downward position: One of the subtle signs of pain in dogs is when their normally upright tail is hanging down.
  • Reluctance to move head/neck: Neck pain is almost always associated with a reluctance to move the head and neck up and down or side to side. When it is painful to lower their head or neck, sometimes a pet will not eat from its food bowl.
  • Limping: Muscle pain, bone pain or joint pain may cause limping on one or more leg(s). Limping is always a sign of pain, whether the limp is subtle or noticeable.

If you suspect your pet may be in pain, schedule a same-day appointment with your family veterinarian. If your family’s veterinarian is not open, bring your pet to your local veterinary emergency clinic. Never give your pet any pain medications at home without instructions from a veterinarian. Almost all over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as Aspirin, Ibuprofen and Naproxen, can be toxic to dogs, causing severe gastrointestinal (GI) ulceration and even kidney or liver failure. Even if your veterinarian has previously prescribed pain medication for your pet, it is still wise to check with a veterinary professional. It is best to bring the medication in the labeled bottle to the veterinary clinic.

After a complete exam to determine the source of pain, your veterinarian may recommend testing, such as X-rays and blood work, and then advise you as to which medications will be best. Keep in mind that your veterinarian likely has access to injectable pain medicines that will act faster than oral tablets. These injections can start relieving pain within minutes, but if medication has already been given at home, it may not be safe to administer an additional dose of the faster-acting injections.

When transporting your possibly-in-pain dog to the veterinarian, use caution. Even the nicest dogs can attempt to bite when the painful area is touched. Most veterinary clinics can provide assistance when you get to their hospital.

Dr. Christine New practices veterinary medicine at the Hillside Veterinary Clinic in Dallas.