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Dogs are known for their stoicism, and even the most loving owner might miss signs that their pet is suffering.

Progressive, persistent pain that creeps up on a dog is often tricky to spot. Referred to as chronic, it can dramatically impact their quality of life.

Understanding the Differences Between Acute and Chronic Pain

Dr. Lindsey Fry is a veterinarian and co-owner of Red Sage Vets in Colorado. The practice specializes in pain management and rehabilitation.

She explains that acute pain is usually pretty obvious. There might be crying and other types of vocalization, a pronounced limp, a change in mobility, or a known event, like surgery or an accident. This pain is seen as having a protective purpose and is often accompanied by redness, swelling, or heat.

Dr. Fry describes how “sometimes the pain is no longer protective. It has become the disease itself, and the symptoms look very different.” Chronic pain is often insidious, and a dog may have to tolerate it long-term if the owner doesn’t recognize the early signs.

Beagle laying down on the carpet indoors.

How Can You Tell if a Dog Is Suffering From Chronic Pain?

Diagnosing chronic pain is tricky as dogs don’t usually present the obvious indicators associated with acute pain. Dr. Fry recognizes that “it’s very individual, so we try to peel back the layers that have developed and find the primary sources. It’s rarely the same between two patients.”

Often, changes in behavior are the most significant indicator of a problem. Sometimes, these changes are noticeable and a big red flag. Perhaps your typically greedy dog has gone off their food. Or, an ordinarily affectionate dog might growl, flinch, or hide when you try to touch them.

Severe chronic pain can induce depression and anxiety in dogs, just like it can in humans. Your dog could become noticeably more withdrawn and less likely to seek interaction or contact.

Older dogs are more likely to suffer from chronic pain. However, owners attribute subtle behavior changes to natural age-related slowing down. As Dr. Fry points out, “Often there’s a chronic pain component that’s pushing them into slowing down more abruptly.”

Maybe they won’t want to walk as far on their walk, or they might need help to jump into the car or climb the stairs. Dogs that used to love toys may no longer play with them, and they could become sleepy or struggle to get comfortable. Even things like excessive licking and small postural changes are sometimes indicative of pain.

Dr. Fry observes that sometimes, “the brightness and strong engagement owners recognize in their dog’s face starts to disappear. There’s more of a disconnected, glazed-over blank stare.”

Senior dog laying next to a leash indoors.
©Sue Harper -

Diagnosing Chronic Pain

Chronic pain is typically complex and multifaceted. However, experienced vets like Dr Fry are “comfortable picking up specific compensatory patterns related to certain types of pain. Whether it’s an old ACL tear, hip arthritis, or neck pain, there are some classic signs we see. So, we try to classify their pain into a few categories, and that helps us start to design a treatment plan.” They’ll primarily look at neurological, inflammatory (like arthritis), and myofascial causes.

Treating Chronic Pain

Arthritis is one of the leading sources of chronic pain, particularly in senior dogs. Dr. Hannah Capon set up Canine Arthritis Management to better educate owners and fellow veterinary professionals on the condition and its treatment options.

Dr. Capon explains, “I had been working as a vet for around 12 years when I became very conscious of how many dogs are euthanized for going off their legs.’ I was also aware that, as a vet, I actually knew very little about soft tissue ailments and felt I needed to offer my clients more than just anti-inflammatory medication and leash rest”.

Adopting a multimodal treatment plan for chronic pain can, in many cases, significantly improve a dog’s quality of life and long-term prognosis.

There are many “game-changers for owners that cost no money and have huge benefits,” Dr. Capon points out. It’s not just about what drugs and canine rehabilitation therapies, such as acupuncture and hydrotherapy, your vet can offer.

While these are key elements, owners must also proactively consider their dog’s lifestyle and home environment. “Ball throwing and high-impact activities will have long-term effects,” notes Dr. Capon. “Owners should be mindful and get their dogs physically checked over by a physiotherapist at least annually.”

She also recommends making simple adjustments at home, like “ensuring your dog isn’t injuring themselves further on slippery floors, blind steps, steep staircases, or elevated sofas.”

Introducing additions such as ramps, orthopedic beds, and rugs around the home are all small changes that can make a big difference.

Senior Golden Retriever laying in the yard next to a ball.
cmannphoto/Getty Images Plus

Why Ensuring Your Dog Is a Healthy Weight Is Important

Following a comprehensive 2018 survey, The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention estimated that over 56% of dogs in the United States were overweight or obese.

Dr. Fry describes how “being overweight isn’t just a physical burden on the joints, but fat tissue itself is also inflammatory. Having a lot more inflammatory tissue is going to make something like arthritis, that’s inflammatory in origin, much harder to control. This means that weight loss is a critical part of the conversation.”

She also recognizes it can be challenging to help your dog lose weight. “When your dog doesn’t want to be active, what brings them joy in life can be eating,” she explains. It’s all about finding the most appropriate, portion-controlled diet and treats alongside the right type of physical and mental enrichment.

Is it Worth Consulting With a Specialist?

For dogs with ongoing chronic pain issues, it can be advantageous to seek the support of a pain management or rehabilitation specialist. “General Practitioners are wonderful and essential, but they often have very limited time,” says Dr. Fry. “Managing something like chronic pain is challenging and time-intensive. Having access to so many pain management options really lets us fine-tune the treatment for the dog.”

This article is intended solely as general guidance, and does not constitute health or other professional advice. Individual situations and applicable laws vary by jurisdiction, and you are encouraged to obtain appropriate advice from qualified professionals in the applicable jurisdictions. We make no representations or warranties concerning any course of action taken by any person following or otherwise using the information offered or provided in this article, including any such information associated with and provided in connection with third-party products, and we will not be liable for any direct, indirect, consequential, special, exemplary or other damages that may result, including but not limited to economic loss, injury, illness or death.

Related article: Palliative Care and Hospice for Terminally Ill Dogs
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