How Can You Tell When a Dog Is in Pain?

Mychelle Blake
Cute beagle dog in bed with ice pack on her head

One of the hardest parts of owning a dog is when they are in pain from an illness or injury. It hurts to see dogs this way although sometimes it can be hard to tell what's going on at first. Unfortunately, dogs can't tell their owners how they feel and a good dog owner will need to watch for clues that their dog may be in pain.

Physical Signs Your Dog Is in Pain

When a dog is in pain, you will either see physical or behavioral changes, or both, that are signs he is in discomfort.

Posture and Mobility (limping)

You may see your dog having problems with moving around the house, such as limping or a gait that seems off balance. If your dog normally can jump up on a couch or bed and they seem hesitant to try or try and fail, these are signs he may be in physical pain. You may also see their body posture appear rigid and tight instead of loose and relaxed. They may sleep in a position that's unusual for them or sit in ways that are out of character.

Heart Rate and Panting

Incessant bouts of panting can be a sign that your dog is in pain. This can often be accompanied by an elevated heart rate and pulse and you may also see drooling. If it's hot outside, it's possible your dog is panting from warm weather but if he continues to pant heavily even after some time inside a cool house, he's very likely in pain.

Shaking

Dogs that are in severe pain may shake, tremble or appear to shiver as if they're cold. They may do this accompanied by trouble moving around and a lack of balance.

Weakness and Lethargy

Extreme weakness and lethargy, as if your dog simply does not want to get up at all, is a telling sign that they are ill and in pain.

Basset Hound sleeping

Facial Characteristics

Some dogs will clearly show signs of pain when you look at their face. They may have large pupils accompanied by a vacant expression. Other dogs may appear "out of it" and almost drugged or drowsy. If they show signs of aggression or fear you may also see their ears pinned back.

Behavioral Signs Your Dog Is in Pain

In addition to clear physical signs of pain, for many dogs their behavioral changes are "loud and clear" signals that they need you to take care of them right away.

Grooming Excessively

If you notice your dog grooming one area of their body non-stop to the point that the skin is inflamed and they may even be removing hair and damaging the skin, this is an indicator that they are feeling pain in that area. In addition to licking an area you may also see them bite at it or scratch with their paws.

Shar-pei puppy dog licking his paw

Sleeplessness

You may see your dog unable to settle at night and they may circle around in their bed and get back up repeatedly, as if they are trying to get comfortable and can't find a position that works. They may also pace at night which can be due to the pain keeping them from falling asleep.

Lack of Appetite and Thirst

Dogs that are in pain tend to eat and drink less and this can get worse if the pain continues without treatment. You may see your dog lose interest in his dinner and weight loss may also begin if their appetite does not improve. The less they eat the more this can contribute to a sense of weakness and lethargy.

Vocalization

If your dog makes unusual noises such as crying, whimpering, moaning or even howling, these are all signs he's uncomfortable. You may also hear them make a sharp yelp or bark or even a growl with certain movements, which usually is associated with jostling the painful area, such as taking a step and putting pressure on a painful paw injury or a human unintentionally stroking a part of their body where they have severe arthritis like their hips.

Howling Dog

Agitation and Restlessness

Dogs that are in pain will not seem like their "normal selves" and may pace about and appear restless and unable to settle. Their behavior may seem agitated and stressed for no apparent reason.

Withdrawal

A sudden change in their friendliness and interest in being with you and other members of the household can indicate they are not well. If your dog starts to avoid contact with people and other pets, and appears withdrawn, this is a sign they want to be alone because they are not feeling well.

Aggression

Some dogs may react aggressively if they are in pain. In these cases the dog does not mean to snap or bite but their level of pain may cause them to react to defend themselves in moments of agony.

Dog biting his owner's hand

Clingy Behavior

While some dogs withdraw from interaction and others become aggressive when in pain, others can be the complete opposite and become very needy. These dogs will show very clingy behavior and appear desperate for attention. They may also become anxious about being left alone.

Housetraining Problems

Some dogs will start to have accidents in the house if they're in pain. This is completely involuntary on their part and can be from the stress and anxiety over their pain making it harder for them to control their bladder.

When to Seek Help From Your Veterinarian

It's always the safest course of action when you notice unusual behavior from your dog to contact your veterinarian. With some signs of pain, it may only be temporary and go away after a few hours or a day, such as the canine equivalent of stubbing a toe that's sensitive for awhile. However, some types of pain may seem minor and can actually be a symptom of a serious medical condition that needs immediate treatment. The best thing to do is to call your veterinary clinic and discuss your dog's condition with the staff and they can advise you on whether you should wait and observe him, or get him in to the clinic right way.

Woman With Dog at the Veterinarian office

Knowing the Signs of Pain in Dogs

Every dog is different and just like people, they will handle pain in their own way. A diligent dog owner will be able to observe their dog and notice when things just don't seem right, such as a happy dog suddenly withdrawing from contact or snapping, or a noticeable change in appetite. Dogs can experience pain from serious illnesses like cancer and kidney disease, joint disorders like dysplasia and arthritis, physical injuries, and from changes in their bodies from old age. Knowing your dog and his daily routine can help you keep him from experiencing long-term pain by getting him veterinary assistance when it's clear it's needed.

How Can You Tell When a Dog Is in Pain?