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Signs of Pain in Dogs

signs of pain in dogs

We all know what it feels like to be in pain, but do you know how pain actually occurs within your own body? Did you know that besides being obviously unpleasant, pain causes detrimental effects to the body, both mentally and physically? This is true for both humans and dogs. Dogs feel pain just as we do, but they express it differently.

Why do we worry about a dog’s pain?

Prolonged, untreated pain can cause metabolic and endocrine changes that negatively affect the body’s systems and organs. It can slow down healing and recovery from a traumatic injury or surgery. It can also cause even further stress to a dog beyond the traumatic event itself.

This occurs whether the pain has been caused by a surgical procedure, a traumatic event like being hit by a car, a sudden (acute) or long-standing (chronic) inflammatory condition, neurologic pain, and more.

What is pain?

Pain is typically categorized as either:

  1. Acute (sudden onset)
  2. Chronic (long-standing, ongoing, can even be lifelong)

Here is a more scientific, detailed explanation of what pain is.

Causes of Pain in Dogs

  • Broken bone, dislocated joint
  • Soft tissue tear (ligament, tendon, muscle)
  • Soft tissue strain/sprain (ligament, tendon, muscle)
  • Back issues such as intervertebral disc disease
  • Ear infection, skin infection, urinary tract infection
  • Stomach and/or intestinal upset (gastritis, gastroenteritis, foreign body, toxin)
  • Some cancers or benign masses in uncomfortable places
  • Post-surgical pain

How do we know if a dog is in pain?

Because dogs cannot tell us about their pain, where it is, how long it has been going on, how severe it is, and other descriptive information to further characterize it, several scoring systems and pain management guidelines have been created to help determine how a dog is feeling. Here are just a few of them:

  1. The American Animal Hospital Association’s “How To Tell If Your Dog is in Pain” (This is a PDF you can download and print out, the same or similar to those used in many veterinary practices).
  2. Some veterinary schools have produced their own pain score system, such as the infamous Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine, used by many vets across the country, especially when monitoring dogs after surgery.
  3. The University of Glasgow created a scale based on behavior, called Glasgow Composite Measure Pain Scale (CMPS). It bases pain levels on a dog’s demeanor, response to people, posture, mobility and activity, response to touch, how much attention they are giving to their painful area(s), and vocalization.

Clinical Signs of Pain in Dogs


  • Scared, submissive
  • Not eating
  • Doesn’t want to interact with people
  • Doesn’t want to or cannot lay down
  • Body Movement:
    • Trembling without stimulation
    • Flinching from light touch/brushing fingertips over body

Facial Expression:

  • Tense facial muscles, furrowed brow
  • Lips drawn back, showing teeth
  • Grimace and unfocused/fearful look in eyes
  • Dilated pupils
  • Ears flat against the head
  • Guarding:
    • Guarding painful area, biting at it
    • Tense abdomen when touched
    • Growing when approached


  • Hunched – back or abdominal pain
  • Prayer position (”Downward Dog” in yoga) – severe abdominal pain
    • Front legs and chest flat on the floor, hind legs standing and belly up off the floor
  • Hiding in the back of the cage or in the corner

Respiratory pattern:

  • Short, shallow breaths


  • Crying, whining, whimpering

On exam, painful dogs may also have a faster than normal heart rate, a higher than normal body temperature, a faster than normal breathing rate, and increased effort to breathe.

Diagnostics Used for Painful Dogs

Your vet may want to check bloodwork, x-rays, or even advise advanced imaging such as abdominal/heart ultrasound, CT, or MRI depending on the condition. If your dog is in a lot of pain, this may require injectable sedative and pain control medications to be administered by your vet. This is to reduce pain and stress in your dog (imagine having your leg x-rayed when it’s broken and any small movement makes you want to scream!)

Treatment Options for Painful Dogs

Treatment depends on the condition. It may consist of:

  • Medications
    • Anti-inflammatory (steroids or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory pain medication)
    • Anti-itch (antihistamines, steroids)
    • Antibiotics or antifungal medications
    • Neuropathic or opioid pain medications for more severe conditions
    • Anti-nausea/anti-vomiting medications
  • Surgery
  • Physical therapy/rehabilitation
  • Laser therapy
  • Acupuncture
  • Regenerative medicine (stem cell)
  • Massage
  • Supplements
    • Glucosamine/chondroitin for joint health
    • Omega 3 fatty acids
  • Ice/heat packs, warm compresses

I think my dog is in pain. What do I do?

  1. Don’t panic!
  2. Make an appointment with us using your FirstVet app or call your veterinarian.
  3. Let your dog rest, do not exercise them, do not try to touch their painful area, or place them in uncomfortable positions.

Read more:

Your Guide to Doggy Body Language

Nothing to bark about! Causes of Limping in Dogs (and what you should do!)

Cranial Cruciate Ligament Injuries in Dogs

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