How can you assess whether or not your dog is in pain?
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How can you assess whether or not your dog is in pain?

Dogs
Health & Safety

It is very distressing for a dog’s owner to know that their dog is in pain, but being able to recognise that this is the case is very important, because if you’re not aware or miss the signs and symptoms you won’t be able to get your dog the appropriate help.

Whatever type of pain your dog is in and whatever has caused it, your vet will almost certainly be able to do something about it – whether this be resolving or managing the underlying condition causing it, or providing medications to reduce the pain experienced or in most cases, a combination of both.

However, dogs obviously can’t tell us that they are in pain and so, they have to rely on us picking up on this, and often, the symptoms of pain in dogs will be self-evident and very clear in meaning. That said, this is not always the case and dogs will sometimes go to great lengths to deliberately disguise the fact that they are in pain at all – or they might be displaying signs of pain that the average dog owner simply doesn’t pick up on.

Veterinary professionals apply a fairly uniform approach to identifying pain in dogs and establishing how bad the pain is, based on a sliding scale of symptoms that indicate the level of pain and how it is manifesting.

This enables them to communicate information to other vets effectively and ensures that other professionals are all singing from the same hymn sheet when discussing a dog’s pain and what to do about it – and for dog owners, developing a basic understanding of how a dog’s pain is identified and scaled can help a lot when it comes to identifying issues and getting the dog help.

With this in mind, this article will share a basic outline of a standard canine pain scale that showcases the symptoms dogs may display and the likely level of pain that they correlate to. Read on to learn more.

Signs your dog isn’t in any pain at all

  • The dog seems happy, content and at peace with the world.
  • They’re able to rest comfortably without any signs of distress or discomfort.
  • They’re alert and paying attention to their surroundings and are bright, alert and responsive to stimulus when awake.
  • If they are in recovery from a surgery or injury, they’re not paying any attention to the area of the injury or the surgical field.
  • Their body is relaxed and in a normal stance for their activity, and they’re not stiff, tense, or holding any part of their body awkwardly.

Signs that your dog is experiencing mild pain

  • They are largely content and able to rest for reasonable periods of time, but they may be a touch more restless than normal. This may manifest as moving around a little more than usual when settling down or while asleep, or taking longer than normal to settle down.
  • Their attention span is not as good as it normally is, and they appear slightly preoccupied if you call their name or otherwise try to get and maintain their attention. If they are usually highly responsive to commands, they may take a second or two to comply, or only partially comply.
  • They may be paying a small but notable amount of attention to the site of any relevant wound or surgical field, such as looking at it, flinching if you touch it or move to touch it, or occasionally whimpering if they move in such a way as to pull or touch it themselves.
  • Their body exhibits a mild level of stiffness, tension or alertness.

Signs that your dog is in moderate pain

  • They are unable to rest in complete comfort, and tend to look uncomfortable or awkward. They may be fidgety or unable to keep still, or keep readjusting their position.
  • They may be whimpering or crying quietly.
  • The dog keeps looking at the area of any wound or surgery (if relevant) and also attempts to lick, bite, scratch or rub at it.
  • Their body position and facial expression are muted, potentially with the tail tucked in, position hunched, ears drooping or flat, and eyebrows frowning.
  • The dog is mildly interested in what is going on around them and may track activity, but does not want to engage with people or things in their surroundings.
  • They will not respond to their name or commands, or only do so reluctantly.
  • They are defensive or fearful about being touched or approached, particularly in the area of the wound or surgery (if relevant) and become tense or flinch if touched.
  • They may cry, whimper or even howl, although some dogs will not vocalise at all.
  • Their bodies appear tense, stiff or otherwise uncomfortable and not relaxed.

Signs your dog is in moderate to acute pain

  • They are unable to settle down to rest, being highly unsettled and potentially groaning or crying when they move.
  • They are determined to bite or otherwise bother at any wound or surgical site unless they are physically prevented from doing so.
  • They are protective of the area in pain, holding themselves awkwardly if necessary to guard it.
  • They are unwilling or unable to get up or move normally.
  • They will either display a marked and acute response to an attempt to touch any wound or surrounding area, such as yelping, crying out, shrieking, or snapping. Alternatively, the dog may display no response at all if the pain is bad enough as to have passed beyond the local area.
  • Their body will be incredibly stiff and tense, and may be twitching or tremoring as a result of this.

Signs that your dog is in severe pain

  • They may be making an almost continual noise, such as howling, groaning or squealing – or may be totally silent.
  • They will be minimally aware of what is going on around them and may be completely unresponsive to stimulus.
  • They may display acute aggression when approached or touched, and may inflict a serious bite.
  • If there is a wound or surgical site present, this will be the focus of their pain.
  • They may cry or yelp when touched even in other areas than that of the issue.
  • Their body may be stiff, taut and unnatural, or alternatively, unnaturally limp if the pain is causing their consciousness to fluctuate.

Your vet may ask you about the signs of pain that your dog is displaying when you call them up with any concerns, so being able to express what you are observing in terms according to a scale like this can be very useful.

If you have any concerns about your dog, even if you are not sure that they are in pain at all, always contact your vet for advice.

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