We use cookies to help us improve website user experience. By continuing to use this site or closing this panel, you agree to our use of cookies. See our cookie policy

How to tell when your dog is in pain


However well you know your dog, it can be tricky to spot that something is causing him discomfort or pain. Clinical animal behaviourist Inga MacKellar explains how to recognise the symptoms.


Dogs are highly sociable creatures, and aren’t likely to hide what they’re feeling. ‘They rely on interacting with us, and will have lots of communication signals to let you know if they’re feeling happy, sad or just want to be on their own,’ says Inga. But however expressive your dog, he can’t tell you when or where he is in discomfort or pain. ‘So, the earlier you realise that something isn’t right, the quicker you can get a veterinary diagnosis on the cause of pain and the best way to treat it,’ says Inga.

Here are seven potential pain pointers she believes every owner should look out for:

1. Abnormal movement

‘If your normally healthy, energetic dog has lost his bounce, starts holding his head in an unusual position, limping or walking strangely, or shows reduced movement in any way, it’s more than likely that something is causing discomfort,’ says Inga. ‘He may also paw at his eyes or rub his ears on the ground if they’re sore. Look out, too, for any restlessness when he’s trying to settle down to sleep, as it might mean that something is hurting when he lies down.’

2. Appetite

Does your dog usually wolf down his food, or tend to be a slow, restrained eater? ‘Any significant change in his appetite, from being right off his food to having a ravenous hunger, or suddenly becoming fussy and showing little interest in treats, may indicate either a specific problem or general poorliness,’ says Inga. Watch how he eats, too. ‘If he’s chewing in an odd way, or reluctantly, he may have painful teeth or gums.’ Any significant change in weight or eating and drinking habits should be mentioned to your vet.

3. Excessive grooming

Take a close look at any area of his body he’s repeatedly licking or chewing – it may be due to a cut or wound hidden in his fur. Persistently niggling or biting at one area can also be an indication of a painful irritation elsewhere in his body, perhaps in the joints. ‘Older dogs having difficulty when trying to reach their paws or hind quarters may be in pain from arthritis,’ says Inga. ‘Problems such as uncomfortably blocked or painfully infected anal glands, or a worm infestation, can also lead to excessive nibbling and licking.’

4. Toileting troubles

If your fully house-trained pet suddenly starts to have accidents, it could be due to a painful urinary tract infection or tummy problems that make it impossible to ‘hang on’ until his usual outdoor toilet times, says Inga. ‘More frequent peeing, or a significant change in your dog’s stools, from diarrhoea to dry, hard-to-pass poos, could indicate that going to the loo has become a painful process.’

5. Vocalisation

You know the usual repertoire of noises your dog makes – when and why he’ll respond with a bark, yelp or whine. ‘But excessive barking, whining or any odd noises he never normally makes might be a shout of pain,’ says Inga. ‘He may make them at random, in response to a particular movement or activity, or just when being stroked or touched.’

6. Aggression

Your normally friendly, loving dog won’t be feeling up to his usual daily routine and fun and games with you, or other dogs, if he’s in pain. ‘Growling and snapping is a way of saying “stay away,” so if your dog starts to show uncharacteristic aggression, keep a note of when and in what circumstances it happens. This will help your vet to build a clearer picture of any pain your dog may be experiencing,’ says Inga.

7. Social interaction

You’re more tuned into your dog’s personality than anyone, so you’ll be the first to know if he begins to show a change in behaviour, such as a lack of interest in the activities he usually loves.

‘A dog in pain may become lethargic, with no energy or enthusiasm for the interaction you normally have. He doesn’t want to play, be stroked or cuddled, or be with the family he is used to having around him,’ says Inga. ‘He might want to sleep a lot of the time, and even abandon his bed for a more private place where he won’t be disturbed.

On the other hand, some dogs may become clingy and needy when they’re in pain, seeking more reassurance from their owners. Each dog is different, so it’s all about spotting anything out of the ordinary and keeping a close eye on it.’

If you pick up on any of these signs and suspect that your dog may be in pain, ask your vet for advice as soon as possible.


Back to top