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Could your dog be in pain?

Updated: May 30, 2023


A conversation about PAIN in dogs!
A conversation about PAIN in dogs!

Pain is such a complex, subjective, and yet, important topic. My own experience with pain then got me thinking about pain in dogs. 

What comes to our mind when we think of a dog in pain? Maybe an immobile dog? Whimpering, Whining? Or an apparent medical diagnosis? Does the absence of these signs mean a lack of pain?


Zoey and how pain looks in her

Zoey and how "pain" is experienced by her
Zoey and how "pain" is experienced by her

My almost 6-year-old dog, Zoey, is your typical cuddle and “clingy” dog. She feels the most comfortable when she has physical contact with someone around her. Not so long ago, suddenly, Zoey stopped climbing furniture around the house. This choice by Zoey seemed a little odd. Being aware of her need to be close to people, I changed the environment around her. These changes helped her seek the tactile comfort of people without forcing her to move in ways she felt were uncomfortable. 

A few days later, she stopped exploring the house as usual. She spends her evenings going around the house and finding things that interest her on a regular day. She was restricting her movement to the bare minimum. She even stopped greeting people when they returned. 

In Zoey’s case, there was a gradual behaviour change. These changes don’t appear unusual unless someone pays attention to the intensity and contrast in the behaviours.

Surely enough, after a few days, she suddenly started limping almost as if overnight. She couldn’t use one of her limbs and was almost stationed in one place needing support for moving around. Zoey’s example here is a pain because of some underlying musculoskeletal issue.

Sammy doesn't limp - Is he pain-free, though?

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Sammy's experience of pain


Pain can be for other reasons too. And here, I would like to share about Sammy, my 11-year-old dog. For an outsider meeting Sammy around food, he would come across as a “hyperactive,” “untrained,” and maybe even “aggressive” dog. He has occasionally bit others’ fingers while being given food by hand. What is the usual course of action in such cases? Train the dog to stop being hyper around food and maybe “punish” when engaging in such behaviours to ensure he knows not to repeat it.

Let us take a moment to dig deeper. While food can be a huge motivator and exciting trigger for many dogs, the intensity seen in Sammy is quite extreme. He switches from a calm and restful dog to extremely hyper within seconds. The sound of vessels, cucumber peeling, and fridge opening can wire him up. Apart from his voracious appetite and hyperactivity around food, he also has a lot of skin and ear issues. We cannot connect the dots when we treat each concern in isolation. But put them together and look at the dog holistically? You will then see a dog struggling with a painful chronic gut issue, triggering various behavioural responses and physiological conditions. Without the holistic approach, the action plan for a dog like Sammy would be behaviour modification training and symptomatic treatment for his skin and ear issues without ever addressing the gut!

In both Sammy and Zoey’s examples, the first signs of pain were not what we usually associate with pain in dogs. And this is why we, the guardians and advocates of our dogs, should know what pain looks like in dogs.


 

But why is it important to talk about pain?

The Numbers

A paper researching the link between pain and problem behaviour by Daniel Mills et al. attempted to investigate the presence of underlying pain when dogs exhibit what we consider as behavior issues. When they surveyed veterinary clinics as part of their study, they suggested that the numbers of suspected pain in the cases were anywhere between 23% to 82%. But this includes just the cases where some pain is already suspected. Then how many dogs are actually living in pain completely unnoticed?

As a Behavior Consultant, most cases I deal with have pain as the underlying reason for behavioral manifestations.

To give you an example. A dog I worked with was getting triggered by almost everything on the walks and could not slow down. But this dog’s gait was enough evidence to explore musculoskeletal discomfort, which may have caused the dog to overload certain body parts. And she was just a puppy!


Another example is a client who came in to address their dog’s hyperactivity around food and the behavior of picking things off the road during walks. After a closer look at the whole case, it was evident that the dog had some gut issues. On medical investigation, she turned out to have malabsorption. 

These are just some examples of how physical pain and discomfort show behaviorally. Paying attention to these signs, going beyond, and finding the reason for these behaviors is essential.

The Lack of Verbal Communication

But it is not just the sheer numbers that make pain a complex topic. Interestingly, in a session, my client asked a very valid question. She said, “We have done the necessary tests for our dog. We have been observing him for any pain he might be experiencing. We checked with our vet, but everything looks normal. So I am not sure if the pain is an issue”.


And I just responded to her with my example. I have been struggling with wrist pain recently. But it hasn’t left me debilitated. I still manage to move through my day without any evident signs of pain and no medical treatment or diagnosis. But I am limited in my ability to carry out specific tasks. I move through my day knowing the wrist hurts, like a constant buzz in the background. No abnormal reports, regular day-to-day functioning, and yet, I am experiencing pain. My pain is unrecognised until I verbalise it. We can go about our daily activities with certain limitations while carrying some form of discomfort. On our bad days, this discomfort can lead to frustration too. So when we can experience pain this way, why not our dogs?

Old,Golden,Labrador,Retriever,Runs,On,Snow,And,Lifts,Injured

This is a dog who looks like he is in pain


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A dog in pain can also look like this!


The Subjectivity in Pain

Pain is a lived experience. It is subjective to the individual experiencing pain. It may not be as frustrating as another person. That, in no way, diminishes my experience of it. 

Since pain is so subjective, we rely heavily on the individual’s input and feedback to create a plan of action. For our dogs, if we are not mindful and keen observers of the individual dog, we may miss this communication and feedback.

When we also start interventions, we desperately look for improvement signs. While using allopathy and other alternative therapies, we may also fall prey to the caregiver placebo effect. We must keep this in mind when dealing with pain in our dogs.

A client's dog - no visible signs of pain. But this dog has unstable posture and behavioral signs of pain.
A client's dog - no visible signs of pain. But this dog has unstable posture and behavioral signs of pain.
Boyka - Another client's dog. Just a year old and has been diagnosed with Hip Dysplasia. Definitely in pain but does not always show it!
Another client's dog. Just a year old and has been diagnosed with Hip Dysplasia. Definitely in pain but does not always show it!

Not just Old/Senior Dogs Issue

Contrary to popular belief, pain is not limited to old or senior dogs. Many young dogs struggle with pain and may even live their entire lives in pain without any help.

It is not important to just worry about “pain” when our dogs get old. Instead of dismissing the conversations about pain because “my dog is too young to be in pain,” we need to consider it a real possibility to offer a life where our dogs can be comfortable and go beyond just survival.

So what can we do as dog parents?

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There are things we can do to help our dogs and advocate for them.

  1. We should be attentive to the needs of our dogs and the changes in their behaviors or preferences. These changes are usually the most common sign that the dog is dealing with some nagging pain/discomfort.

  2. We should not dismiss pain just because the dog is young. Young dogs have pain issues too.

  3. We shouldn’t wait till the issue has become severe or pronounced. We should start looking for early signs. Early interventions can help us manage the problem in time and delay the progress of pain in case of chronic conditions.

  4. We should understand the needs of a dog. Providing for their physical, emotional and social needs from when they are young can give them a more extended good, quality lifestyle.

  5. We should be aware of the lifestyle and home changes we need to make when bringing a dog home. Since they are a completely different species, we need to make the house, now also their house, dog-friendly.

  6. You can contact nutrition consultants for nutrition help, behaviour consultants for lifestyle & environment management and veterinarians for medical support.

Are you struggling to determine the underlying reasons for certain behaviours in your dog? It could be pain and discomfort. Book a FREE Discovery Call and we can work together to help you and your dog.



About The Author – Sowjanya S Vijayanagar

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Sowjanya is a certified Canine Behaviour Consultant. She works with dog parents who are struggling to understand their dogs. She is also an Associate Member of Pet Dog Trainers of Europe (PDTE). In addition, she is a canine ethology research enthusiast and hopes to work on various research projects.


Her dogs, Sammy and Zoey, inspired her to embark on this learning journey, and they will forever be her teachers!

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My first pet kid is around 7 year old boy goes off food and tends to gets less active and tries to communicate to me he is in discomfort with either pawing me or seeking my nearness more (other wise he isn't a cuddle bug). But my second pet who is a senior dog who came home last six months back had severe health issues including pyometra which the vet at Cessna and the rescuer both conveniently chose to ignore as it wasn't severe before certifying her good to be out up for adoption. She came to our home in Chennai but then it took me almost 20 days to notice what was wrong with her. She is very foody…

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