7 signs a dog is in pain

However well you know your pet, it can be tricky to spot that something’s causing them discomfort. Petplan’s veterinary expert Brian Faulkner explains how to recognise some of the key signs of a dog in pain.

Dogs are highly sociable animals and don’t usually hide how they’re feeling. They have lots of communication signals they use to let us know if they’re feeling happy or sad, or just want to be on their own – but however expressive your dog is, they can’t easily tell you when they’re in discomfort. That’s why it’s important to know the signs that mean your dog might be in pain, so you’re able to act as quickly as possible to get them happy and comfortable again.

1. Abnormal movement

One of the first things to look for is changes to your dog’s usual way of moving. ‘If your normally energetic dog is limping or walking strangely, or shows reduced movement, there may be something causing them discomfort,’ says Petplan’s expert vet Brian Faulkner. Some dogs tremor when in pain, while other dogs pant – or they might paw at their eyes, or rub sore ears on the ground. Watch out for any restlessness or reluctance when they’re trying to lie down, as this can mean something is hurting.

2. Changes in appetite

Does your dog usually bolt their food, or are they a slow, restrained eater? Any significant changes to your dog’s feeding habits, from refusing their food or showing little interest in treats to a sudden increase in appetite, can be a sign that they’re unwell. Watch how your dog eats, too: if they’re chewing in an odd way, they may have painful teeth or gums. If you notice any significant changes to your dog’s eating or drinking habits, or they’re losing or putting on weight unexpectedly, mention it to your vet.

3. Excessive grooming

Is excess licking a sign of pain in dogs? ‘It can be, yes,’ says Brian. ‘Inspect any areas on your dog’s body that they are persistently licking or chewing – it may be due to a cut or wound, which might be hidden under their fur.’ Persistent biting or nibbling at one area can sometimes be an indication of pain and injury elsewhere in the body. Older dogs sometimes lick the skin of joints in which they’re experiencing arthritic pain, while other causes of excessive grooming include infected or blocked anal glands, or a worm infestation.

4. Toileting troubles

If your fully house-trained dog suddenly starts to have accidents in the house, this could be due to pain within the urinary tract or a gastrointestinal problem that makes it difficult or uncomfortable for them to ‘hold on’ until they are able to go outside. As Brian explains, any changes to your dog’s regular habits can be an indication they might be in pain. ‘Key things to look out for include more frequent urination, or significant changes to your dog’s stools, whether that’s diarrhoea or very dry, hard-to-pass stools.’

5. Vocalisation

Most dog owners know their dog’s usual repertoire of noises, including when and why they might respond with a bark, yelp or whine. But anything out of the ordinary can be a sign of pain. Pay attention to excessive barking, whining or any other unusual noises your dog never normally makes, and try to work out whether they’re making these sounds at random, or in response to a certain movement or activity. Your dog might also become more vocal if you’re inadvertently stroking or touching a painful area.

6. Aggression

When your normally friendly and loving dog is in pain, they probably won’t feel up to their usual routine of fun and games, whether that’s with you or other dogs. ‘Remember that growling and snapping can be your dog’s way of telling you to stay away,’ says Brian. ‘If your dog starts showing signs of uncharacteristic aggression, try to keep a note of when this happens and what was going on at the time. This can help your vet build a clearer picture of what may be triggering it, including potential causes of pain.’

7. Social interaction

You’re more tuned into your dog’s personality than anyone, so if they start to show a change in their usual behaviour, you’ll be the first to notice. This might include a lack of interest in activities they usually enjoy, instead seeming lethargic or ‘off colour’ – or they might become less enthusiastic about how they interact with you and other members of your household. Dogs in pain sometimes prefer to be alone, and some may sleep more of the time, often seeking out quieter spots in the house where they won’t be disturbed. At other times, they might become more clingy, and seek reassurance from their owners. As Brian says, ‘Every animal is different – the key thing is to be alert to what represents unusual behaviour for your particular dog.’

You know your dog best. If you’re ever concerned they might be in pain, even if you don’t spot any of the signs we’ve outlined above, it’s always a good idea to ask your vet for advice.

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