Search Menu

Having lived around humans for thousands of years, dogs are masters at reading our emotions and body language. But we don’t always return the favor, especially when it comes to noticing that our dogs are in pain. And make no mistake, dogs do feel pain. They just don’t always show it the way we do. Pain and discomfort can severely impact your dog’s quality of life, so it’s important to learn how to read the signs and intervene when your dog is suffering.

Do Some Dogs Feel Pain More Than Others?

Some dogs are incredibly stoic while others might whimper and whine at the first sign of the nail trimmer. It all depends on their personality. And maybe their breed. Research on pain tolerance between breeds showed that there are differences, at least as far as the perception of veterinarians and the public goes. For instance, Labrador RetrieversMastiffs, and American Staffordshire Terriers were rated to have very low sensitivity to pain while WhippetsMaltese, and Chihuahuas were considered to have high sensitivity. Although there isn’t yet any physiological basis for these perceived differences, it makes sense as different breeds were developed for different purposes. For example, a Mastiff with high pain sensitivity wouldn’t have been terribly effective as a big-game hunter or war dog, two jobs they were historically used for.

©Mary Bloom

How to Know If Your Dog Is in Pain

Whether your dog is stoic or gives Broadway-worthy dramatics, how can you be sure when they’re experiencing pain? You might expect your dog to solicit help from you when they aren’t feeling well. After all, they have no problem asking for a walk or treat. As useful as that would be, it just doesn’t work like that. Most dogs downplay their pain. After all, it makes a wild animal vulnerable to aggression or predation if they show signs of weakness, and dogs have inherited that instinct. You need to watch for subtle signals, which means truly knowing your dog’s baseline behavior and activity levels. The signs of pain might be physical, behavioral, or a combination, so be alert to anything out of the ordinary.

Physical Signs of Pain in Dogs

Beagle laying down next to a full bowl of kibble.
©sap -

Physical signs of pain in dogs can be obvious, like limping, or more subtle, like simply not going as far as usual on your daily walks. Some of the physical signs your dog is in pain include:

  • Mobility issues. Your dog might limp, walk slower than normal, or even refuse to walk at all. Or they might become reluctant to use the stairs or jump on and off furniture or into and out of the car.
  • Difficulty changing position. It might hurt your dog to lie down or get up again. You might notice them frequently shifting positions as they try to get comfortable.
  • Shaking or trembling.
  • Abnormal posture. Your dog might have a hard time standing or sitting in their usual way. For example, they might hold their head low, arch their back, or shift their weight forward or back to take pressure off sore joints.
  • Panting excessively, even when resting.
  • Changes in facial expression. Your dog’s face might look less relaxed, or they might grimace or have a blank expression. Your dog also might look drowsy with half-closed eyes which can be from the pain interfering with your dog’s ability to sleep.
  • Decreased appetite. Your dog might eat and drink less or even go off their food.

Behavioral Signs of Pain in Dogs

Just as with people, pain can make dogs cranky, so watch for changes in your dog’s behavior. Learn to read your dog’s body language, so you can spot signs of stress associated with pain. For example, your dog might pull back their ears or look away when you try to pet a painful area. Or they might tuck their tail, lick their lips, or yawn when you pull out the leash. All of which indicate your dog feels anxious about the experience. Other behaviors to watch for include:

  • Lowered energy levels. Your dog might not want to play or exercise for as long as they used to.
  • Restless behavior or pacing. This can be because your dog can’t settle comfortably.
  • Changes in sleep. Your dog may be unable to sleep as long as usual due to discomfort, or they might sleep even more to escape the pain.
  • Lack of interest in toys or games.
  • Disinterest in physical contact. Your dog might flinch when you reach out to touch them or hide at grooming time.
  • Licking or biting themselves. Dogs can become fixated on painful body parts and may lick or chew them until they have created a bare patch in their fur or injured their skin.
  • Depression or anxiety. Your dog might withdraw from activities they used to enjoy or seem quieter than usual.
  • Housetraining accidents. If your dog finds it painful to get up or walk, they might avoid going outside for the bathroom. Holding it like this can lead to accidents in the house.
  • Aggression. Any new sign of aggression could be a result of pain. Discomfort can lead to irritability making it harder for your dog to put up with handlingbrushing, petting, etc.
  • Seeking more attention than usual. Your dog might solicit affection as it provides comfort from the pain and stress of the situation.
Rottweiler laying down in the couch sleeping in the sunshine.

Vocalizations Dogs Make When They’re in Pain

Dogs also communicate pain with vocalizations. Watch for groaning or grunting when your dog moves, particularly when lying down or getting up. They might also yelp when you touch a tender spot on their body. Whining and whimpering are sounds of distress. You might also hear your dog howling more than usual. And finally, watch for growling when people or other pets approach your dog. That could be your dog’s way of preventing any interactions they anticipate might be painful.

What to Do If Your Dog Is in Pain

When you see signs of pain in your dog, the first thing to determine is whether the situation is critical. This is usually obvious as the signs are more severe or seem to come out of the blue. Pain with sudden onset, also known as acute pain, can result from injury, like a broken bone or strained muscle, or illness, like an ear infection. Don’t take a wait and see approach. Your dog is suffering, and the situation could be more serious than it looks. Part of being a responsible dog owner is taking your pet to an emergency veterinary clinic as soon as possible so treatment and pain relief can begin.

Chronic pain in dogs is pain that has been going on for a while. It might look more subtle and sneak up on you. For example, you might only realize your dog has been sleeping more than usual after a few weeks go by. Illnesses like arthritisperiodontal disease, or cancer can cause this type of pain. It’s also common in senior dogs, but don’t just dismiss it as normal aging – it isn’t. Again, your dog needs a trip to the veterinarian, but in this case, you likely don’t need the emergency clinic. However, when you book the appointment, be sure to explain the signs your dog has been exhibiting, so the clinic can determine how quickly your dog needs to be seen.

Dachshund with its owner getting checked by a veterinarian.
Alexander Raths via Getty Images

There are ways you can help your vet diagnose the source of your dog’s pain. First, keep a detailed record of what you’ve noticed. For example, does your dog avoid stairs all the time or only after getting up from a nap? Or how long have they been picking at their food? Second, try to photograph or videotape the behavior of concern. Dogs often behave differently at the clinic than they do at home, so providing the vet with details will help them understand how your dog is feeling.

While you wait for your vet appointment, modify or stop any activities that seem to trigger pain. For example, if your dog doesn’t want to go for a walk, simply take them out for bathroom breaks. Or provide a ramp or stairs to help them in and out of the car. But don’t give your dog any medications without prior instruction from a veterinarian as many human drugs are dangerous for dogs. Once your vet has zeroed in on the problem, they will discuss treatment options with you which could range from laser therapy to acupuncture to dietary supplements. The important thing is to identify signs of pain promptly because the sooner your dog’s pain is managed and treated, the better their quality of life will be.
Get Your Free AKC download

Puppy Vaccination Schedule

Download and print this vaccination schedule to help keep your puppy on track for its first year of life!
*Turn off pop-up blocker to download
*Turn off pop-up blocker to download