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10 signs a dog is in pain: A vet's guide

signs a dog is in pain
(Image credit: Getty Images)

While you may think it would be easy to recognize doggie discomfort, signs a dog is in pain can actually be very subtle. Some dogs are surprisingly stoic. Especially when pain comes on slowly and gradually, dogs are often able to hide far more pain than you might expect. 

Failure to recognize pain could result in your dog not receiving necessary veterinary help. A veterinarian can diagnose the source of your dog’s pain, and then recommend appropriate treatments. 

In addition to correcting the underlying source of your dog’s pain, your veterinarian may recommend pain medications, such as carprofen, tramadol, and gabapentin. However, these treatments can only be recommended if you recognize your dog’s distress.

Keep an eye out for the following signs, which may indicate pain in dogs: 

1. Your dog’s activity level decreases 

 While a gradual decrease from the frenzied energy of puppyhood can be a normal age-related change, a significant decrease in activity can be associated with arthritis, an injury, or an internal illness. 

Any significant change in your dog’s activity level could suggest pain, and warrants a veterinary exam. 

 2. Your dog is restless  

Although pain often leads to a decrease in activity levels, some dogs respond in the opposite way. These dogs are unable to rest comfortably, because of their pain. They may pace during the day and night, unable to find a comfortable position in which to settle down. 

3. Your dog is shaking 

Shaking can be caused by a number of factors, including anxiety or excitement. This is especially common in small breed dogs, such as Yorkies and Chihuahuas. If you notice a new onset of shaking in your dog, however, pain may be to blame. 

Dogs with arthritis often tremble when standing for long periods of time, and other sources of pain can cause dogs to tremble at rest. 

dog shaking with Cushing's Disease

(Image credit: Getty Images)

4. Your dog is crying or whining  

Like shaking, crying and whining can also be difficult to interpret. Some dogs are more vocal than others, even when they’re feeling well. However, a new onset of crying or whining in a normally-quiet dog could indicate pain or discomfort. 

5. Your dog is especially anxious 

Only you know what’s normal for your dog. However, if your calm, laid-back dog begins acting anxious for no apparent reason, pain could be to blame. 

Dogs can’t necessarily understand and rationalize pain like we do, so discomfort can easily lead to anxiety. Additionally, some of the behaviors seen with pain (such as shaking and trembling) can easily be mistaken for signs of anxiety

anxiety in dogs

(Image credit: Getty Images)

6. Your dog becomes aggressive or antisocial 

Like humans, dogs can become a bit “grumpy” when they are in pain or feeling unwell. Changes in behavior can be a key indicator that your dog is experiencing pain or discomfort. 

Dogs in pain may become aggressive when disturbed, whether you accidentally bump into them or ask them to move from a preferred resting spot. Similarly, they may avoid human interaction due to pain. 

If your friendly, happy-go-lucky dog is suddenly acting aggressive or aloof, consider whether pain could be at the root of this behavior change. 

7. Your dog is limping  

This should go without saying, but a dog with a visible limp is almost certainly experiencing pain. Limping dogs should be seen by a veterinarian, for an appropriate diagnostic workup and appropriate pain relief.

8. Your dog has an abnormal posture 

Depending on the cause of your dog’s pain, you may notice that they are standing or walking in an unusual way. For example, dogs with back or neck pain in a hunched-over posture, with their neck hanging lower than their shoulders and/or their tail tucked. 

Any dramatic change in your dog’s posture or movement could indicate pain and should be addressed by a veterinarian. 

9. Your dog’s appetite decreases dramatically 

Pain can affect your dog’s appetite in a number of ways. Dental pain or neck pain can make chewing and swallowing uncomfortable, while pain that makes your dog reluctant to move may decrease how often they walk over to the food bowl. 

Additionally, well-intentioned but inappropriate use of human over-the-counter pain medications, such as aspirin for dogs, can lead to an upset stomach and a corresponding decrease in appetite. 

a dog with a bowl of food

(Image credit: Getty Images)

10. Your dog is panting more than usual  

Panting can have a number of underlying causes, including warm weather, anxiety, fever, and pain. While panting doesn’t automatically mean that your dog is painful, pain is one of many conditions that can lead to increased panting in dogs. 

Summary

The signs a dog is in pain can vary widely, ranging from blatantly obvious to incredibly subtle. It’s important to be familiar with these signs, so you can recognize pain in your dog as soon as possible. 

If you see potential signs of pain, it’s important to seek prompt veterinary treatment. Your veterinarian can help you head off significant medical issues before they become too serious, while also providing your dog with necessary pain relief. 

Dr. Barnette is a graduate of the University of Florida, where she received both her B.S. in Zoology and her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM). She has 15 years of clinical experience as a small animal veterinarian, treating dogs, cats, and occasional exotic patients. She now works as a freelance veterinary writer, creating educational content for veterinarians, veterinary team members, and dedicated pet owners. Dr. Barnette lives in southwest Florida with her husband and daughter (plus two cats, a dog, and a rescued dove!) and enjoys kayaking, biking, and hiking. Learn more about Dr. Barnette at www.linkedin.com/in/catherinebarnette.