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How To Detect and Relieve Dog Pain

By: Pamela Mills-Senn 

There are few things more distressing to dog owners than the idea of their pet in pain. And yet, just like we are certain to experience physical pain at some point in our lives, so too will our dogs. When pain strikes, we can make our beloved pet—and ourselves—feel better by responding to it as effectively as possible.

man kneeling next to black and white dog while dog looks at him

The First Step?

Realizing that the dog is actually in pain—which isn’t always easy to do, says Dr. Patrick McKee, DVM, who is with the Apple Valley Animal Hospital. Located in Hendersonville, N.C., the full-service hospital provides a range of services including wellness and preventative care, senior care, as well as surgical and medical care for injured or ill patients. The majority are cats and dogs, although the practice also sees some pocket pets and exotics. The hospital also provides the base for a sister practice—Apple Valley Equine Mobile Veterinary Services—which serves horses, goats, sheep, swine or poultry.

“The number one mistake people make with dogs in pain is not recognizing that they are in pain,” McKee says. “This can happen for several reasons. Pain is not always in black and white. In fact, we grade it on a range of 0 to 10, with 0 being pain-free and 10 being debilitating, severe pain. More often a dog’s pain is somewhere in the middle of that range.”


"The number one mistake people make with dogs in pain is not recognizing that they are in pain."

Dr. Patrick McKee, DMV

Notice Changes

In a previous post we discussed the various causes of dog pain and the behaviors that can clue owners into when their dog is in discomfort. Some of those mentioned included: not wanting to be petted (or conversely, exhibiting a need for more attention, affection or comforting); changes in sitting or sleep positions; not jumping or playing with toys; excessive grooming; hiding; or changes in breathing patterns, such as panting.

Pet owners should be aware that pain can come on gradually, says McKee, resulting in the pet accommodating or adjusting to it, making it harder to detect the animal is uncomfortable.

“They can develop subtle methods for coping with it,” he explains. “Dogs can be very stoic, showing little or no indication of the pain they’re enduring. It could be the owner is misinterpreting signs. Examples I may hear from clients include comments like ‘Scruffy has gotten grumpy in his old age’, or ‘Chloe doesn’t get on the furniture anymore’, or ‘Barkley has gotten lazy, he doesn’t like going on walks’.”

Pain also increases a dog’s stress level, which in turn, can affect the pet’s ability to easily handle other stressors, says Mikkel Becker, the lead animal trainer at Fear Free Pets. Located in Denver, Fear Free provides online and in-person education to veterinary professionals, the pet professional community and to pet owners, providing the knowledge and tools to look after a pet’s physical and emotional well being.

“Just as we might be more irritated and likely to withdraw and lash out if we’re in pain, dogs too are often withdrawn from their normal selves or are more irritated than they would otherwise be if they’re feeling good,” Becker explains. “Consequently, it’s important to talk to your pet’s vet since many medical issues first present themselves as a change in behavior.”

What, Where, Why

Knowing the type of pain is important, says McKee. Is it a chronic and degenerative process or the result of an injury or accident? Pinpointing the location is also useful. In some cases, a dog will alert to a sore joint by, for example, keeping it turned away from the owner, he explains. Other times the dog may seek out contact, such as a message for a sore joint or back. This information will help identify what positions or activities may worsen the pain.

Then there’s the pain resulting from surgery. Because this tends to be of an acuter (sudden) onset the dog has had little time to adapt to it and will, therefore, be more reactive, says McKee.

“Of course this does depend also on the pain control methods used following the surgery as well as what the surgery was,” he says. “Following most surgeries, we recommend decreased activity levels during the appropriate healing periods.”

“Following most surgeries, we recommend decreased activity levels during the appropriate healing periods.” 

Dr. Patrick McKee, DVM

Responding & Alleviating

In cases where the pet’s activity level must be restricted, it’s important to nevertheless engage the dog mentally and physically, doing so in a way that doesn’t add more stress to the healing body, says Becker. She suggests tactics such as reward-based training or stationary and/or easy food puzzles that promote controlled movement. She also suggests trying hydrotherapy (with the vet’s permission), for example, leading the dog into a bathtub or other water source. 

“Consider using a canine life jacket in situations where the dog will be in higher depths of water,” she advises. “But for many, simply wading in shallow water at chest height or less can be helpful and provide enough resistance to strengthen muscles that will help with the healing and recovery process.”

Pain must be taken seriously, Becker continues, and owners should do whatever possible to help mitigate the pain, working closely with the vet to find effective strategies to improve the dog’s quality of life.

There is a multitude of alternative treatments out there. CBDs or canniboids extracted from the hemp or cannabis plant are all the rage in the pet industry. Pain relief is one of the most toted benefits and  CBDs are now available in treat, bites, CBD oils and multiple other forms.  This medicine for dogs is not psychoactive and there is no "high" associated with the CBDs.

Glucosamine is also a often prescribed remedy for joint problems such as arthritis. Canine arthritis affects 9 of 10 dogs that reach full maturity according to the American Pet Products Association. Also remedies like cold pressed salmon oil can provide some anti inflammatory effects.

An orthopedic bed can be helpful specifically for recovery. Trevor Crotts, President at BuddyRest says that they feel exactly the same and "take pride in producing a product that enhances pets’ comfort and reduces their pain". Truly orthopedic dog beds can take painful pressure off of afflicted areas.  Crotts explains "Our orthopedic dog bedsare designed to conform to the animal’s body and to redistribute the weight across the surface, eliminating painful pressure points and allowing nutrient-rich blood flow back into those areas."  

dog spine diagram on orthopedic bed

Learn More About Dog Pain With Our Post Dog Pain The Ultimate Guide 

 We never want to see our precious pups in pain, but alas it is part of life. Understanding how to look for signs of pain in dogs is the first step. Working to mitigate the pain and making them as comfortable as possible is surely a worthwhile endeavor.  


Pamela mills-senn author at sitstay.com

 Pamela Mills-Senn

A freelance professional that writes on matters of interest to pet owners and the pet industry

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