I'm sure most dog owners can relate when I say that, after knowing your dog for a while, you pick up on the tiniest of changes in their body language. And this is a great thing, because body language is the most useful form of communication between owner and dog. But did you know that your dog's body language isn't just an indicator of their mood - it can also give you clues about their physical health.
Short of seeing a clear injury on your dog, a change in body language is one of the best ways to tell if they are in pain. The problem is, while there are similarities to human body language, canine body language is a unique dialect... and so you can miss important signs and signals if you don't know what to look for.
There's only one thing worse than knowing your dog is in pain - and that's not knowing they're in pain. Though no pet parent feels happy being told their four-legged bestie is in discomfort, the benefit of this knowledge is that it gives owners the ability to take appropriate action and treat the problem.
There are a myriad of different reasons as to why a dog could be in pain, and only a Veterinarian can accurately diagnose this. Just like people, dogs may suffer from any number of injuries, illnesses, or health conditions that cause them grief - and countless treatments to remedy these. The key is to knowing something is wrong in the first place.
Though we can't give you medical advice to treat your dog - we can give you the run down on common body language signs to watch out for in your dog, which may hint at a deeper issue. We hope this helps to maximise the communication between you and your dog such that you can recognise their pain as soon as it occurs, and seek the treatment they need.
+++ 7 CANINE PAIN SIGNALS +++
1. HAVING DIFFICULTY GETTING AROUND
Stiffness and limping are some of the most obvious signs of pain in a dog, particularly with regard to the musculo-skeletal system. There are a number of common causes for limping, and certain diagnostics (such as physical exam, blood tests, x-rays and scans) are employed to determine the exact cause in any particular dog. Minor causes of limping may include: torn dew-claw or other nail; cut or burnt paw pad; infected paw and/or lodged grass seed; or a soft-tissue injury like a sprain. Some of the more serious causes include degenerative diseases such as arthritis, or major injuries such as a cruciate ligament rupture or bone fracture. Pretty much all of these conditions require some form of treatment, whether it be surgery, therapy, and/or medication in order to bring the dog back to full health, with the exception of degenerative conditions (in which case the aim is to maximise quality of life and slow down the progression of the disease). Generally with mobility changes, you may also notice hesitation in a dog to undertake their normal activities - for example, they may avoid running or climbing stairs, to minimise their pain. Keep your eyes peeled for these clues!
2. EATING, DRINKING, OR SLEEPING DIFFERENTLY
If your dog normally enjoys their food (as most do) and suddenly turns their nose up at it - they may be doing so as they are in pain. Sudden appetite changes are a big hint that something isn't quite right with your dog, and it's important to monitor them closely and seek advice if this happens. A change in appetite can signify any condition, including musculo-skeletal, but also gastro-intestinal such as a tummy virus, gut infection, parasite infestation, or foreign body ingestion (eating things they shouldn't). If your dog is refusing their food, this could also be due to dental pain, particularly if there is nerve exposure within the mouth. In order to notice appetite changes in your dog, it's a good idea to take stock of how much they would normally eat when they are feeling well (and how enthusiastically), so you have a yardstick to compare the change to.
If you notice your dog suddenly drinking a great amount of water, this can point to anything from stress, to foreign body ingestion, to kidney-conditions... and again, it helps to know how much water your dog would normally drink.
Dogs that are in moderate pain will usually sleep for longer periods and more frequently than average dogs as this is part of the healing process. However, if the pain is extreme, dogs may understandably find it difficult to sleep at all.
3. CHANGES TO THE BODY SHAPE AND POSTURE
Think about your dog's silhouette - you can picture it, right? A noticeable change in posture or body shape is a clue that your dog may not be feeling 100%. If parts of the body become lumpy or swollen, this can indicate pain causes such as bites or stings, infections, inflammation, or tumours. You may notice your dog is unusually restless and can't seem to get comfortable. A dog who is constantly hunching or bowing down requires urgent Veterinary attention as this can be a hallmark sign of bloat, a gut condition that is lethal if not treated immediately.
4. BEHAVING STRANGELY
Your dog is your best mate, and you know their personality well. Behaviour changes may occur suddenly or over time, and it's important to remember that any apparent behaviour changes can be a telltale sign of pain. Dogs who are in pain may seek solitude so may stop greeting you at the door and start hiding under the bed. Behaviours such as aggression, barking, howling, and even pacing around the house can be mistaken as obedience issues when in fact they can stem from a physical cause, and it's important to cross any possible health conditions off the list before assuming the changes are behavioural and undertaking training.
5. DROOLING EXCESSIVELY
Excessive drooling is a particularly concerning pain signal as it tends to indicate some of the more severe injuries and illnesses in a dog that require fast treatment. There are certain dog breeds that are normally slobbery, such as the Newfoundland or St Bernard, but for dogs who don't usually drool, it's important to talk to your Vet. Excessive drooling can be a sign of nervousness or anxiety (which can be treated with the help of a positive trainer) or even motion sickness. However it can also point towards serious health problems such as choking, heat stroke, foreign-body ingestion, and even things like fracture and ACL rupture in which case the pain may be so extreme that it causes nausea, which in turn triggers drooling. If you ever notice your dog foaming at the mouth, go to the Vet without delay as this is a hallmark sign of poisoning.
6. GROOMING THEMSELVES LESS OR MORE
Sometimes dogs lick themselves because they can - but sometimes they are attempting to soothe themselves. There are cases in which obsessive licking is a psychological issue, but it's important to eliminate physical causes from the realm of possibility before coming to this conclusion. Dogs who obsessively lick their paws may do so for any reason, from a small prickle stuck into their paw pad or minor infection, to more concerning reasons such as internal bone or ligament damage. Dogs may obsessively lick their tail and rear due to problems such as parasites, dermatological complaints, or impacted anal glands. Importantly, dogs may not always lick the area of their body that is in pain - it may simply be a coping or distraction mechanism from the root cause, so it is important to look for any other signs of a health condition.
A shaking or trembling dog may be easily mistaken as feeling a bit chilly or suffering the old age jitters, when it fact this can indicate things such as pancreatitis, epilepsy, kidney failure, neurological disorders, or poisoning. It's important to understand what is normal for your dog: some dogs may shake with excitement at times, but in most cases shaking is not normal and should be checked out promptly, remembering that the more serious conditions are often very time-sensitive. Even if shaking is due to chronic ongoing problems (e.g. arthritis) there are treatments and therapies to consider which will help to reduce pain.
8. HAVING TROUBLE BREATHING
Some short-snouted dogs have restricted breathing as part of their breed make-up, and will labour more than the average dog after a walk or on a hot day. If your dog does not normally labour in their breathing and you then notice wheezing, straining, or heavy panting, this is a fairly clear signal that they may be in pain. Causes can include conditions like chest infections, injuries, allergies, foreign body ingestion, toxicity, heat stroke, cancer, heart problems, and even metabolic diseases. Coughing is often (but not always) a sign of Bordatella (aka Kennel or Canine Cough) which is very treatable, but highly contagious. Inform your Vet if your dog is coughing before your appointment, as they may ask you to enter via a separate entrance to minimise risk to other patients. It's important to take your dog to the Vet or Emergency Centre quickly if you notice they are having breathing difficulties, especially if there is a sudden onset.
It's valuable to bear in mind whilst thinking about dogs and pain, that although dogs may share similarities with their kin, each dog is individual and so the way they express pain may be unique to them. Two dogs may suffer the same health condition and display different symptoms - so it's impossible to rely on any online advice to diagnose your dog's condition.
Secondly, in our experience over the years we have found that most dogs are very stoic and don't tend to express pain in the way that we would. A dog in pain may still wag their tail when it's time for dinner or a walk. For this reason it's very easy for health issues to go unnoticed until they are quite advanced. In addition, a dog with compromised health often won't limit themselves as much as they ideally should to protect their health - that is, many dogs don't know when to stop, so it's vital we make this decision for them if we suspect or know there is an injury, illness, or other ailment.
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Lastly just a little reminder that whilst we've spent a long time working with dogs, the information we provide of course does not replace the amazing personalised medical advice from your Veterinarian. If you have any concerns about your dog, speak to your Vet, and if you need a recommendation for an awesome Vet Clinic... PM us on Facebook!
Til next week, goodbark!