This article was updated on July 17th, 2021
A dog who is in pain can show a wide variety of symptoms – some are obvious, some are very easy to miss, or misunderstand.
Pain is the body’s way of telling us that we need help because something is wrong, and we humans are usually pretty good at getting ourselves that help.
But, our dogs can’t verbalize their discomfort and/or distress so it’s up to us to learn how to recognize when our best friend is in pain, and to learn how to help him feel better.
Due to aging bodies, degenerative conditions or chronic health problems (sometimes requiring surgery or other veterinary interventions) older dogs tend to experience pain more often than younger ones.
They can also be injured more easily than a younger, stronger dog.
This page will help you recognize the signs of a dog who is in pain, as well as give advice on finding the help that he needs to feel better.
Use these links to jump directly to the section you need, or simply scroll down to get the big picture.
Looking for Dog Pain Relief Options?
If you know your dog is in pain, and why, you will want to make sure that he gets the right pain relief. Check out this page, it has all the information you need to make an informed decision and help your pooch feel better faster… Dog Pain Relief Guide
How To Tell If Your Dog Is In Pain
A dog in pain will show different signs depending on what is causing the pain, where it’s located in his body, and how severe it is.
When the pain is due to an injury or trauma it’s often fairly easy to see where the problem lies.
Broken bones, cuts and scrapes, torn ears, bleeding paw pads, injured eyes etc. are pretty obvious.
However internal injuries, even severe ones, are not visible to the naked eye but can be extremely dangerous for your dog.
Common Causes of Pain in Dogs includes:
- Broken bones
- Ligament damage
- Arthritis or other joint issues
- Dental problems
- Eye problems
- Ear problems
- Infection or inflammation
- Spinal disease
- Digestive issues
- Urinary tract issues
- Organ disease
Each of these can cause pain, but the symptoms can vary from dog to dog and depends on the location and severity of the pain and the individual dog’s temperament and personality.
Symptoms of Pain in Dogs
These are equally important, and usually a dog will show some symptoms from each category.
Dogs don’t tent to show that they are in pain as quickly, or easily, as humans do. They can be very stoic and quiet even in severe discomfort.
Disclaimer: This content is not a substitute for veterinary care. Always consult with your vet for health decisions. Learn more.
This may be an instinctive action, designed to protect a weakened dog from appearing weak in the wild.
Basically, to recognize pain in your dog you’ll need to be observant and in tune with your his normal behavior, attitude and personality… and sudden change is cause for concern and needs to be evaluated by a veterinarian.
Gradual changes may creep up on you, but these also need to be checked out because chronic conditions or those which get worse very slowly can still be serious and cause your dog to be in pain.
Physical Symptoms of Dog Pain
Physical changes are the easiest to see and you’ll probably notice these fairly quickly.
A dog in pain may show just one or two of these, but still be in a lot of discomfort.
- Limping – this could signal pain in a muscle, joint or paw. An injury, inflammation or a disease such as arthritis could be to blame.
- Reluctance to Take Part in Familiar Activities – if your dog seems less than enthusiastic about a walk, or game, that he usually loves. This could mean he hurts when he walks/runs or jumps. Again, an injury, inflammation or joint problem could be at the root of the trouble.
- Panting – a dog who is stressed or in pain is likely to pant heavily.
- Yawning – yawning doesn’t usually mean your dog is tired. It’s more likely a signal that he’s feeling stressed or could be in pain.
- Whining, Whimpering or Howling – dogs don’t vocalize or complain about pain the way humans do, but you might hear your dog whine or whimper if you touch the exact area that hurts or when he’s jumping, climbing steps or getting up from the floor.
- Breathing Changes – stress or pain can cause more subtle changes in the way your dog moves air. Rapid, short or shallow breathing is the most likely change.
- Rigid Belly – although Bloat (aka Torsion or GDV in dogs) is most often associated with a swollen or rigid belly, pain in any other (especially the back, neck or rear legs) can also cause your dog’s tummy to feel hard or distended.
- Altered Body Movements – even if your dog isn’t limping, he may ‘favor’ a particular part of his body, hold his head or neck oddly, or move more slowly, or awkwardly, than he normally does. He may avoid sitting, or lying down, or have difficulty squatting to poop or lifting his leg to pee. Body language speaks loudly!
- Eye Symptoms – pain can cause the pupils to dilate. Damage to the actual eye itself might cause the pupil/s to constrict, the eye to look milky/cloudy, excess tearing or discharge.
- Swelling or Bleeding – these are also usually fairly obvious signs of a problem. Bleeding is usually accompanied by pain, swelling may or may not be. If there is redness or pus around a swollen area, or it feels hot to the touch there is likely infection present – and that causes pain. Even a swollen area which doesn’t appear painful needs to be checked out by your vet to rule out a serious problem.
- Difficulty Eating – difficulty chewing can be a sign of dental disease, broken teeth and so on. A damaged or abscessed tooth is very painful.
- Bad Breath – this is another physical sign of a dental problem and could be accompanied by mouth pain.
Behavioral Symptoms of Dog Pain
Changes in your dog’s behavior can be subtle, but they are important indicators of pain in dogs, and equally as common as physical symptoms.
You know your dog better than anyone else and will likely be the first person to realize that something is ‘off’ about his behavior. Trust your instincts!
- Loss of Appetite – a dog who is in pain, anxious or unwell is likely to eat less than normal.. or lose his appetite altogether.
- Lethargy & Sleepiness – when your dog doesn’t feel good he tends to curl up somewhere and sleep. Excessive or unusual laziness or lethargy is a common sign of pain or illness in dogs.
- Loss of Interest – this can be a loss of interest in food, toys, games, walks, even treats or attention. Apathy or a depressed attitude could be a sign of pain, illness or anxiety.
- Aggressive Behavior – a dog in pain is understandably going to react badly if the affected area is jostled, touched or moved. It may just be a low growl from a dog who’s never growled at you in his life – or it could be a snap or bite. It could be pre-emptive or after-the-fact. If your dog seems bad tempered and this is not usual for him, it could be a sign that he’s in pain.
- Shy or Fearful Behavior – if your dog has always been friendly and happy, but suddenly starts to avoid others and act shy, or doesn’t want to play with his doggie friends, he could be feeling unwell or be in pain.
- Clingy or Anxious Behavior – although more likely to be a symptoms of anxiety, clinginess, neediness and/or a desire for constant attention and reassurance can be a sign of pain in dogs.
- Over-reaction to Stimuli – if your dog over-reacts to something that normally wouldn’t bother him eg. being picked up or hugged or he has an exaggerated response to loud noises or visitors when he’s normally placid – this could indicate that he’s in pain.
- Excessive Licking – dogs lick and groom themselves all the time. But if your dog is suddenly OCD about licking at his paws, or his tail, or any other part of his body, it could be a sign that the area is painful.
- Housebreaking Accidents – if a dog who is fully housetrained suddenly starts having accidents indoors it means something is wrong. Anxiety or stress can cause this to happen, as can pain, injury or internal disease/damage.
In his book Dogs Don’t Cry, veterinarian Dr James St. Clair helps dog owners recognize, manage and treat the pain, stiffness and other problems caused by joint conditions such as arthritis.
WATCH: 3 Important Tips To Care For an Old Dog [VET VIDEO]
He explains how extensive personal experience and research has led him to believe that we tend to think of our dogs as more human than canine, and so expect them to react in human ways rather than canine ones.
As you can imagine, this tends to cause some communication problems… definitely impacting the way in which we interpret our dog’s pain level or reactions.
Dr St. Clair has identified what he calls the ’12 Most Common Silent Signs of Joint Pain in Dogs’.
Interestingly, many of them are included in the lists of physical and behavioral symptoms of pain I have listed above .
I guess my years of dog ownership have honed my interpretation skills some – good to know!
If your golden oldie suffers from arthritis or other conditions causing pain and stiffness, Dr St. Clair’s book might be a valuable tool that helps make your pet more comfortable.
Dog Pain Treatment
The type of treatment you need for a dog who is in pain obviously depends on what is causing it.
Injuries or trauma need immediate veterinary care and may require surgery.
Chronic conditions such as arthritis or hip dysplasia can be treated with certain medications and sometimes with physical therapy too.
Dental problems and disease may need tooth extractions and cleaning under anesthetic.
Bladder stones or kidney stones need to be broken up or surgically removed.
… and so on.
Regardless of the root cause of the discomfort, a dog who is in pain for any reason is likely to require pain relief of some description, either in the short term or over an extended period of time (for chronic conditions).
But you can’t just share your own pain reliever with your dog!
Many medications used to control pain in humans are totally unsuitable, often unsafe or downright dangers as well.
Your veterinarian will prescribe a dog pain medicine which is safe and appropriate for the condition.
When doing this he will take into account:
- Cause of pain
- Severity of pain
- Dog’s age
- Dog’s weight
- Dog’s general health
- Pre-existing health conditions
There are a wide variety of prescribed dog pain medication choices, and a couple of over-the-counter options which you MAY be able to use depending on your dog’s overall health.
Natural remedies for pain relief in dogs are also available and include simple things such as an appropriate exercise regimen, massage or acupuncture, heat or ice, herbal remedies and natural supplements.