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How to recognise signs of pain in your pet

Davies Therapy and Fitness Centre Team

Anaesthesia, Pain Clinic, Pet Owners

Dogs are notoriously good at hiding signs of pain, which is great as a survival tactic in the wild but not so good for the owners of domesticated dogs wanting to ensure their dog’s quality of life and wellbeing. Rest assured, with a good understanding of your dog’s personality and a keen eye for certain behaviours, you can be confident you’ll notice subtle indicators of pain and be able to act on them appropriately.

Why do dogs conceal pain?

In wild species, learning to conceal signs of injury, disease and pain prevents them from being perceived as weaker and thus an easy target for predators.

Are there any signs I can look out for?

Yes. As a descendant of wild wolves, our domesticated dog breeds are practiced at hiding signs of pain and discomfort, but there are still some important clues you can look for.

What are the typical signs of pain in dogs?

General behaviour:Shaking, flattened ears, low posture, aggression, grumpy temperament, panting or crying, excessive licking or scratching a specific area, reluctant to play, interact or exercise, lameness (limping), stiffness after rest, loss of appetite.

Ontouch or inspection:Licking lips, flinching, turning head, moving to avoid touch, crying or vocally reacting, panting, increase in respiratory or heart rate, warmth of area, redness of area, swelling of area.

Will these signs always be noticeable?

Not necessarily. It’s important to consider that often only a few of these behaviours are seen when an animal is in pain, and whilst they may be noticeable in an acutely painful condition, in more progressive or chronically painful conditions, these behaviours may be much subtler.

What’s important to look for is any pattern to changes in your dog’s behaviour. You can monitor your pet to see:

  • Do certain behaviours become common after exercise?
  • Are behaviours more pronounced in the morning or evening?
  • Are you more likely to see these behaviours after a longer walk at the weekend rather than a shorter one during the week?

This information will help you and your vet to build a picture of the problem, control it appropriately and monitor for changes.

How can pain management help?

Whether it’s related to an acute injury or a more chronic one, there are several approaches to pain management in dogs. Where possible, the direct cause of the pain will be addressed however, if this is not an option, the pain management approach taken will depend on the following:

  • The type of pain
  • How long it has been present (chronicity)
  • Any other health issues your dog may have

Lots of simple changes can help ease discomfort in a long-standing painful condition, such as pacing levels of activity, or making minor changes to the home environment.

At Davies Therapy and Fitness Centre, our pain management team will assess your dog, provide helpful exercise guidance and utilise a variety of treatment techniques to alleviate the pain and discomfort they are suffering.


Recognizing Neck and Back Pain in Dogs

By Kate Mueller, DVM
angell.org/emergency
[email protected]
781-902-8400
MSPCA-Angell West, Waltham

One of the most stressful experiences a pet owner can have is knowing your dog just doesn’t seem “right,” but the exact problem is elusive. Maybe Fido seems reluctant to go up the stairs, or he doesn’t want to go on his daily walk. Maybe it’s that he is not quite as enthusiastic about dinner as usual. Perhaps it’s just a look in his eyes that tells you he isn’t feeling his best. All of these things can be signs of pain in animals. When pain is secondary to a known trauma like a cut or broken bone, it is easy to diagnose. However, spinal pain is fairly common in dogs and is typically not associated with a known traumatic event. Therefore, it can be much harder to recognize. Identifying neck and back pain promptly can help owners seek care for their pets, and veterinarians can perform diagnostics to pinpoint the cause of the pain and provide treatment and relief.

As previously mentioned, signs of neck and back pain in dogs may be hard to recognize. Most dogs will not whimper or cry in pain (other than occasionally at the time of acute injury, or when the pain is intermittently exacerbated). Signs that may be seen include lethargy, change in attitude, and out-of-character aggression, such as trying to bite when picked up or petted. Some animals may have a decreased appetite, or stop eating entirely. Of course, appetite changes can be a sign of many different disease processes pain should be a consideration especially when decreased appetite is not accompanied by other gastrointestinal signs like vomiting and diarrhea.

A dachshund exhibiting a hunched posture consistent with thoracolumbar (back) pain.

Many animals with neck and back pain will be reluctant to participate in normal activities, such as jumping on or off furniture, going up and down stairs, playing with housemates, and going for walks. They may walk gingerly, like they are walking on eggshells, or with a wobbly or “drunken” gait, especially in the hind limbs. Dogs with neck pain are often reluctant to lift their heads fully and may walk with low head carriage, and dogs with back pain sometimes stand with a hunched posture or even may have a tense abdomen, as a result of using their abdominal muscles to try to stabilize and support a sore back. Tremors or excessive shivering (especially when it is not cold) can also be a sign of pain.

A beagle exhibiting a hunched posture consistent with cervical (neck) pain.

If you suspect your pet has neck or back pain, prompt veterinary attention is recommended. Your veterinarian will start with a complete physical exam and will attempt to identify and localize the source of the pain. This is done by palpation of the spine. Some dogs may react by crying out when a certain spot on the back or neck is firmly pushed many dogs do not cry out even in this scenario, but will instead exhibit muscle fasciculation (muscle twitches) when the painful area is reached. If the pain is in the neck, the dog may resist having his or her head moved in a normal range of motion up, down, and side to side.

Once back or neck pain has been identified, your veterinarian will further evaluate your dog to determine whether any neurological deficits are present. In many dogs, pain is present in the absence of any neurological deficits. The first deficit to be seen as disease progresses is typically weakness or a wobbly gait, most commonly in the hind limbs. Your veterinarian will watch your dog walk, to see how he carries his head, how he moves his legs, and whether he scuffs or drags any of his feet.

Following the exam during which pain was identified, further diagnostics may be discussed to diagnose the cause. The categories of neck and back pain can be broadly defined as soft tissue injury (for example a pulled muscle ‑ this is not actually a spinal injury, but presenting signs can be similar), trauma, intervertebral disc disease, infectious disease, inflammatory disease, and neoplastic disease (cancer). Intervertebral disc disease can occur in any dog, but is more common in certain breeds, including French bulldogs, dachshunds, beagles, Shih tzus, and basset hounds. Infectious diseases that cause neck and back pain include tick borne bacterial diseases. Diagnostics that may be discussed include blood work, radiographs (x-rays), and potentially more advanced imaging including MRI. Treatment in all cases includes pain management other treatments will depend on the underlying cause of the pain.

Recognizing neck and back pain in dogs can be difficult, sometimes even for veterinarians. However, prompt recognition and treatment allows for relief of pain and, in many cases, prevention of the progression of disease to a more serious or irreversible state. Keeping these tips in mind may help you to identify neck or back pain in your dog when he or she “just isn’t acting right.”


What causes sore ears in pets?

The most common underlying cause of ear disease in our pets is allergy. Most of us are familiar with skin allergies, but pets with skin allergies will almost always have associated ear problems, because the ear canals are lined by skin too. The inflammation caused by the allergy allows infection by fungi and bacteria to set in, making the ear problem much worse. Other things that can allow secondary infections to establish are ear mites, which are very common in pups and kittens, and foreign objects, such as grass seeds in the ear canals. In severe cases, the ear drum may rupture and the infection can spread to the middle ear cavity and even further.

If your pet shows any signs of ear trouble, it is important to have your pet examined by your vet. Although some “home remedies” are available, they are often not effective, and can actually do severe damage if the eardrum is ruptured. Your vet will take samples to see what type of infection is present, and what sort of treatment will be most effective. If there is a lot of discharge in the ears, they will need to be cleaned as the first step of treatment, as ear drops will not be able to penetrate the discharge. This may have to be done under general anaesthesia. Your pet will then have eardrops and possibly other medication. In severe cases, it may be necessary to have a second cleaning 2-3 weeks later.

If your pet has an allergy, a simple cure is not possible, because your pet will always be predisposed to skin and ear problems. However, with careful management, it is possible to keep both under control. Ear problems caused by ear mites and foreign bodies are easily corrected. Early treatment gives the quickest and best results. Healthy ears mean a happy pet!

If you are concerned about your pet’s health or wellbeing please contact your local Greencross Vets clinic today.


Humans can easily access a range of OTC pain relief for a variety of issues. Acetaminophen (paracetamol), ibuprofen and aspirin are just some of the medications commonly used by us for pain relief. When your dog is in pain, it might be tempting to give them one of these medications to help them. However, simply giving them something from your medicine cabinet isn't a good idea. While there are similar medications for dogs, giving them products made for humans could do more harm than good. An incorrect dose, problems with mixing medications and sensitivity to human medications can all cause problems. In fact, cats do not tolerate acetaminophen at all, but it may be used in dogs in some cases for pain control, although toxicity can occur if too much is given.

Human medications given to dogs could cause complications including:

Holes in the stomach lining

When can you give your dog NSAIDs?

NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) are a group of medications, including ibuprofen and aspirin, that reduce inflammation, pain and fever. There are special NSAIDs designed just for dogs, and there might be some occasions when you can give your dog a human medication. For example, your vet might recommend that you give your dog aspirin under their supervision. NSAIDs for dogs include:

Carprofen (Novox or Rimadyl)

These medications can all be prescribed by your vet. They can also diagnose what's causing the pain and help to treat that too.

Side effects to look out for:

If your vet does prescribe pain relief for your dog, you need to watch out for certain side effects. All medications have potential side effects, but these are weighed against the benefits that the medication delivers to determine their effectiveness and safety.

Some of the side effects to watch out for are:

Digestive issues, including diarrhea and vomiting

Your vet will have a better knowledge of your dog's health, so they can give you more information about what to look for. You might find it helpful to read the leaflet that comes with the medication too, as this will give you instructions and tell you about potential side effects. If the medication did not come with a leaflet or handout you can always ask your veterinarian for one.

Other risks to consider

There are some other risks you might want to think about, both if you're considering giving a human NSAID to your dog and if your vet has prescribed medication. Most pain relief for dogs is administered either orally or by injection. An oral medication might be in liquid form, which is easy to add to food, or it could be a pill or tablet. Giving your dog a pill can be tricky. You can try to make it easier by putting the pill in something tasty (such as inside a small “meatball” of canned dog food), but that doesn't always work. If you know your dog doesn’t take oral medication well, ask your vet for other suggestions.

Allergic reactions are always a possibility too, although it's important to remember that they are rare. Medications are tested before they can be approved so they shouldn't have a high chance of causing a reaction. Still, some dogs can react badly to certain medications, so it's always good to be on your guard (especially when starting a new medication).

Are there alternatives to medication?

As well as getting a prescription from your vet, there are other ways to manage pain for your dog. Some conditions, such as arthritis, can improve when you change your dog's diet. Supplementing food with omega-3 fatty acids helps to reduce inflammation in the joints and monitoring weight can also help to reduce pressure on the joints.

Some supplements, such as glucosamine and chondroitin, could also help with pain relief. There is evidence that they might help to reduce swelling in joints and repair cartilage.

There are several pain relief options for your dog, but it's always best to discuss with your veterinarian, even when giving them supplements. Just another benefit of having pet insurance through Trupanion.


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