What is silent pain in dogs?
Is my dog in pain? What to look for and how to listen by Dr. James St. Clair
As pet parents we’ve all most likely been in situations where our dogs have gotten hurt. Whether you accidentally tripped over your dog or stepped on their paw carelessly, you’ve probably heard your dog let out a quick yelp or cry and run off. Was it pain or fear? Either way, how did you feel in that moment? Does the word horrible come to mind?
We all love our dogs and we would NEVER want to inflict pain on them or hurt them in any way, shape, or form. As humans, most of us associate pain with some kind of vocal response, be it a cry, yelp, whine, or whimper. Heaven knows when we are in pain we do all of the above and more, complaining to everyone around us. But when it comes to our dogs, how they communicate when they are in pain is completely different than what most people think.
Just this week in my practice a five-month old boxer puppy named Caleigh came in partially weight-bearing on her left front leg. Her dad told me that she started limping over the weekend, and he had no idea why. She never cried or complained. He never saw any kind of accident or trauma. She even took a four-hour car ride with him to visit his children in Boston without a complaint. When I examined Caleigh my only finding was that she had heat coming from the left front carpus (wrist), and when I pressed on the joint she tried to move away from me. She never cried once during my exam. My obvious next step was to take an x-ray of her leg. To my surprise I found that she had a complete fracture of both the radius and ulna. Thankfully, Caleigh will be fine. The bone was not displaced, so I splinted the leg, immobilizing the joints above and below, and sent her home with pain medications and an appointment in two weeks for a cast change.
In acute, extreme situations such as Caleigh’s in which she actually had a broken bone, our rational minds come to accept that yes Caleigh must be in pain. If you have ever broken any bones, you know this hurts BIG TIME! Yet Caleigh never cried once.
So what about situations in which the pain is more chronic, such as a dog who is dealing with chronic arthritis? Are these dogs actually experiencing pain? And if so why don’t most pet owners “pick up” on it?
For over ten years in my rehabilitation practice I’ve asked the same question to my clients whose dogs were diagnosed with arthritis. Do you think your dog is in pain? And 90% of the time, they say no. When I ask them how they know, the answer is always the same: They tell me their dog never cries or whimpers.
It took me a few years and a lot of hyper-focusing on this issue to finally come to the realization that the problem is NOT how our dogs communicate. The real issue is that we are not actually “listening” to them correctly. We are listening with human ears and observing with human eyes, not with the ears and eyes of a dog.
Then I discovered one very big word that explained it all: anthropomorphism.
Anthropomorphism is defined in the Webster’s Dictionary as follows:
“… described or thought of as being like human beings in appearance, behavior. For example:
considering animals, objects, etc., as having human qualities.”
What this means is that we try to interpret our pet’s emotions or behaviors as if they were human. In other words, because we love and bond with our dogs on such an intense level we in a sense “think they are humans” and therefore expect our pets to show or communicate signs of pain the same way humans do. We expect them to cry, whine, whimper, or complain. Yet the reality is that they are dogs and not humans. We should “think, look and listen” more like dogs if we truly want to connect with them. And when it comes to pain evaluation, we need to learn how to listen to them.
After years of evaluating and listening to both my patients and their parents, I created a list of the most common signs or signals that our dogs use to tell us they are in pain, which I highlight in my new book Dogs Don’t Cry. Because the majority of this communication is not vocalized, I named them “The Silent Signs of Dog Pain,” and they relate specifically to bone and joint pain.
Here is a list of the most common Silent Signs of Dog Pain:
- Overall slowing down
- Slow to get up or get down
- Avoiding stairs or slow to go up stairs
- Avoiding jumping into the car or onto beds or couches
- Sleeping more and/or sleeping longer
- Reluctance to go on walks or walking less than usual
- Displaying a closed hind leg stance while standing
- Displaying a wide front leg stance while standing or walking
- Bunny hopping while walking, jogging, or running
- An obvious one. limping
- Overall stiffness
- Muscle atrophy/loss
- Joint licking
- Shaking or trembling
- Behavioral changes such as detachment or uncharacteristic aggression
- Other vocalizations such as groaning or grunting
Obviously some of these “Silent Signs” on an individual basis can signal problems other than just bone or joint pain alone. If after reading this list you think your dog may be displaying one or more of these signs, I strongly encourage you to make an appointment with your veterinarian to discuss the issue.
My takeaway advice is this: As loving pet parents, NOW is the time for us to change the way we answer the question of whether or not we think our dog is in pain. In order to do this, WE need to LEARN how to LISTEN to our dogs more carefully with open minds and open hearts.
You can find my book Dogs Don’t Cry on Amazon. Click here to learn more. 100% of book sales are being donated directly to help senior dogs in rescues who need pain management.
The information presented by The Grey Muzzle Organization is for informational purposes only. Readers are urged to consult with a licensed veterinarian for issues relating to their pet’s health or well-being or prior to implementing any treatment.
The Grey Muzzle Organization improves the lives of at-risk senior dogs by providing funding and resources to animal shelters, rescue organizations, sanctuaries, and other nonprofit groups nationwide.
About the Contributor:
Dr. James St.Clair, is author of Dogs Don’t Cry, an Amazon #1 Best Seller. He is also the author of the 5-Star Rated, TopDog Health Home Rehabilitation Guides which provide step-by-step instructions on how best to help your dog recover after some of the most common orthopedic surgeries. Dr. St.Clair currently owns a progressive four-doctor small animal practice in central Connecticut. In 2004 he founded TopDog Health & Rehabilitation which is now one of the internet’s most trusted sources for pet owner information and products when it comes to orthopedic surgery and joint health management. Dr. St.Clair is passionate about education and making dogs comfortable and pain free.
Signs And Symptoms That Your Dog Is In Pain
When people are in pain, it’s pretty hard to miss most of the time. We complain about our aching back. We yell out because we’ve stepped on something pointy. We limp because it hurts to put pressure on a leg. We lay down in the middle of the day in complete silence and darkness because we have a migraine.
Dogs, unfortunately, aren’t always quite so easy to read. First off, to start with the obvious, they can’t tell us if something hurts because of that whole not-talking thing. And while things like limping or whining every time they put pressure on an area are pretty sure signs of a dog in pain, symptoms aren’t always so clear — especially if your dog is of the “walk it off” type.
Still, there are a number of more subtle things that you can watch for if you’re worried that your pooch might be hurting more than she’s letting on.
Even if they’re trying to be tough, dogs in pain tend to be more vocal, but unless this is paired with a specific physical action, it’s not always easy to spot immediately. A hurt dog may express this vocally in a number of ways: whining, whimpering, yelping, growling, snarling, and even howling. If he’s vocalizing more than normal, see what’s up.
Constant Localized Grooming
Dogs in pain will often lick their paws constantly in an attempt to sooth themselves. When dogs are hurt, one of their first instincts is to clean and care for the wound by licking it as well. This is obvious if it’s a visible wound like a cut, but often even when pain is internal, dogs will lick that area in an attempt to fix the problem. Dogs will also lick theirs paws to rub their eyes if they have eye pain. If you notice excessive self-grooming in general, seek the help of a vet.
Differences in Sleeping, Drinking, and Eating
Many dogs will sleep more when in pain because they’re trying to heal or because it’s too hard to move around. In this vein, a loss of appetite and changes in the way and amount they drink are common.
Is your dog panting even though she hasn’t been exercising? Do her breaths seem faster or shallower? These things can be signs that it hurts her to take a breath.
Changes to the Eyes
Dogs with eye pain frequently squint. Additionally, you might notice that his pupils are smaller. For pain in other parts of the body, the opposite is true — the pupils get bigger.
If your dog is hurting, it can make it difficult to sit or lie down. Because of this, you should check them if you notice they are sitting or lying in an unusual position or seem to have trouble staying put. For example, they might keep trying to sit or lie down and almost immediately get up and move around again.
Withdrawing or Seeking Affection
Some dogs, when they aren’t feeling well, try to keep away from you and may even hide. Others will be all over you, seeking affection constantly.
Ever heard the expression, “Like a wounded animal?” Well, there’s a reason. When animals are injured or otherwise in pain, many will go into protection mode and try to get you to stay away because they’re worried you’ll hurt them. This may mean that your normally docile dog suddenly starts growling, pinning his ears back, and even biting if you do something that worries him. Typically aggressive dogs sometimes show the opposite behavior.
Obviously, most of these symptoms can mean several different things, so you don’t just want to assume your dog is in pain. As long as your dog isn’t acting aggressively, one thing you can do to check is to poke and prod (gently but firmly) around their body — just like your vet does. This can help you to localize the source of the pain, but be careful — otherwise docile dogs will sometimes bite when hurt if you touch a sore spot.
If you find something that seems worrisome or the odd behavior continues, see a vet immediately to diagnose the problem.
How were you able to tell that your dog was in pain in the past?