I hate that I can't communicate with my pups. There is so much I would tell them, like, "I didn't mean to step on your tail, I would never purposely do anything to hurt you!" and "We are only going on vacation for a few days. I promise we aren't abandoning you." More importantly, I really wish they could tell me when something's wrong. Though they may never have the gift of language, here's how dogs tell you they're in pain... and, more importantly, what you should do about it.
If you notice any of these signs that your dog might be in pain —whether it's as explicit as a limp or simply a nagging feeling that something seems off — it's important to contact your veterinarian. "There are various causes of these signs in dogs, and some can be quite serious," Dr. Emi Saito, VMD, MSPH, MBA, DACVPM, of Banfield Pet Hospital, explains to Romper. "The earlier you catch and address potential signs of pain or illness with your veterinarian, the better your chances are of getting your pet back to a comfortable place." It's much better to call with a "silly" question and find out you don't need to worry than to ignore the potential issue and discover later that something is seriously wrong. Whenever I'm on the fence about taking my own dog in for a "just in case" check-up, I remind myself that I am my dog's only protector. And can you imagine being in pain with no way to tell anyone? It's always better to be safe than sorry.
1. They're limping.
This is one sign you obviously won't miss. If your dog suddenly starts limping, there could be a variety of things at play, from leg pain to an issue with the pad on their foot. If your fur baby is limping, their veterinarian may do a few different things. "If it’s an acute pain, like a cut or a broken bone as a very extreme example, they’ll probably take x-rays, and they’ll be very careful to not touch the area that’s hurting and address that pain immediately," Dr. Joyce Login, DVM, Veterinary Medical Lead, Pain, Oncology and Specialty at Zoetis tells Romper.
Another common issue that can cause limping in dogs is osteoarthritis. While this is a chronic, progressive, and irreversible disease, Dr. Saito urges pet owners to get into a vet ASAP. "The earlier a veterinarian diagnoses and begins treating this condition, the better. When a disease like osteoarthritis is diagnosed early, providing comfort through pain medications may mean lower doses of the medicines are needed than if diagnosed at a later stage," explains Dr. Saito.
2. They are whimpering or making other sounds (more than usual).
A few weeks ago, my senior dog let out a scarily loud yelp out of nowhere, followed by a series of whimpers. We were en route to the emergency vet within minutes, and there we discovered that she had a painful foxtail weed in her ear. While Penny's cries made it clear she was in pain, other dogs will simply become more vocal than usual. "Just like people, each pet may react to pain differently — some will visibly or audibly react to only the slightest discomfort, while others will not react until they are experiencing severe pain," Dr. Saito tells Romper.
3. They hesitate when jumping out of the car or on furniture.
If your dog, who is typically quick to hop in and out of your vehicle or jump onto the couch for a snuggle, suddenly pauses or refuses to do so, they may be in pain. This is also true if your dog has started taking a longer time to get up after sitting or laying down. "These are things that we often say are due to dogs getting older, but they’re actually due to pain," explains Dr. Login. In other words, don't chalk these behavioral changes as inevitable aging issues.
4. They suddenly become aggressive, or simply don't want to be touched.
When I don't feel well, I turn into a monster. Seriously, just ask my husband. Dogs often react in a similar way. If your sweet pup suddenly growls when you pet them, or even tries to bite, they may be warning you that they're in pain... and that's your cue to back off. "The dog’s not doing it vindictively, but just to let you know that they’re hurting," Dr. Login explains to Romper. Worried about getting a reactive dog into the vet? Focus on being extremely gentle, not jostling them too much, and even putting a soft muzzle on them if necessary, Dr. Login instructs.
5. They are breathing heavily or panting.
All dogs pant from time to time, but take note if your dog seems to be doing it at random times. If Fido is suddenly panting while relaxing in your air-conditioned home, it may be a sign that he's uncomfortable. "Excessive panting is a common symptom of discomfort or pain," explained Pet Health Network. "In fact, dogs who are uncomfortable often exhibit panting well before more obvious indicators of pain, such as whining or limping, arise."
6. They lose their appetite.
A sudden loss of appetite can be a big indication that something isn't right with your dog. I was so thankful that I took my tiny senior poodle in for a check-up after she stopped finishing her meals; it turned out she had cracked a tooth, and eating was a painful experience for her. It's not always a dental issue causing your dog's hunger strike, however. Pain anywhere can cause them to become disinterested in their once beloved kibble.
7. They are trembling.
There are a variety of reasons that your dog may start shaking, and pain is one of them. Trembling can indicate an injury, nausea, and even poisoning, according to WebMD. If your dog suddenly starts quivering out of nowhere, take note of any other coexisting symptoms, specifically vomiting, diarrhea, or limping.
Keep in mind that trembling can also be a sign that your dog is excited or nervous. If there are no other symptoms, create a quiet, calm environment and see if the trembling stops as your dog relaxes.
8. They become lethargic.
Decreased energy is a common sign of pain in dogs. You may notice that your dog is spending an increased amount of time curled up in the corner asleep, or perhaps they're suddenly lagging behind on walks. Obviously, some dogs are naturally lazier than others; it's a red flag if there is a sudden marked change in their energy levels. "If you know what’s normal for your dog, it’s a lot easier to recognize when things become abnormal," Dr. Login tells Romper. "In my experience, pet parents are very attuned to their dogs, they know that something is different, but what they might not appreciate is that that behavior change, or whatever is different, is due to pain."
If you've noticed any of these signs, booked an appointment with your vet, but have a few hours to kill until you can take your dog in, there are a few ways to keep your dog comfortable. Dr. Login suggests keeping your dog in a quiet, low-traffic area and making sure they have clean, soft bedding to rest on. However, stay close. "You want to make sure that you can keep an eye on them so that if something changes, and you notice that there’s any kind of stress, you can be on top of that," Dr. Login tells Romper. Unless instructed by your vet, do not give your dog any type of medication.
When you adopt a dog, you're agreeing to become attuned to their behaviors, and to respond appropriately when you notice something is awry. If you suspect your dog is in pain, reach out for help. Once they're feeling better, they'll pay you back in wet kisses and tail wags... and is there anything better than that?