Identifying Canine Discomfort: Signs Your Dog Might Be in Pain

Identifying Canine Discomfort: Signs Your Dog Might Be in Pain

In our day-to-day interactions, play, and exercise routines with our canine companions, detecting signs of their discomfort can prove challenging. How, then, can dog owners tell if their dog is in pain?

Signs Your Dog Might be in Pain

Alterations in your dog's Activity Levels

Conventional wisdom dictates that a dog in pain may exhibit reduced activity. A noticeable shift could be their increasing reluctance towards customary walks. Unwillingness to venture out, reluctance whilst putting on the harness or lead, or attempting to evade the outing altogether may signal an underlying discomfort. It’s imperative not to dismiss such behaviours as mere laziness or being intentionally annoying and to dig a little deeper into these behavioural changes.

Some dogs, paradoxically, might display heightened activity and playfulness when experiencing pain or illness. An unusual surge in playfulness, contrary to the expected restful demeanor, might indicate an underlying issue, as observed in instances like my own dog, Lily, whose extra playful tendencies signal discomfort and pain during episodes of impacted anal glands or urinary infections. Becoming super playful or becoming more active may reduce pain by increasing natural pain relieving endorphins or increasing their sense of pleasure. Don't assume an active dog is not in pain, look at the bigger picture.

Alterations in Gait Can Indicate Your Dog is in Pain

Observant owners may notice changes in their dog’s movement patterns. Whether sensed through feeling changes down the lead or visually observed, a dog favouring a particular gait, looking or feeling a little lumpy when walking, or opting for faster movement, potentially minimizing the strain on an achy joint, could signify your dog is in pain. Sometimes pain is more obvious as the dog is clearly lame or hopping on one leg. As dogs age and arthritis sets in they can become more stiff. If your dog is getting up or lying down with less vigor, consider pain.

Displays of Irritability

Instances where a dog displays grumbling or apparent irritability, especially when approached while resting, or asked to do something active might serve as an attempt to avoid potential discomfort, as opposed to a behaviour indicative of stubbornness or dominance, contrary to certain behavioural interpretations. Many dog trainers try to brush off uncooperative or grumpy behaviour as the dog being stubborn or dominant and trying to be in charge. Hierarchical methods used to modify perceived dominance behaviour then can result in a breakdown of the relationship between dog and owner. Forcing your dog to do things they are trying to avoid due to pain could increase the likelihood of aggressive or problematic behaviour displays and is certainly unethical at the very least.

Self-Grooming and Physical Contact

In cases of pain, dogs tend to lick the affected area. In situations where the targeted area is inaccessible, the dog might redirect their grooming behaviour elsewhere, leading to observable changes in the coat’s colouration on those areas. They may even start to lick their blankets or other surfaces instead of themselves if this is not possible. Additionally, resistance to physical contact or affection, especially in dogs typically receptive to such gestures, might suggest an underlying state of discomfort.

If your dog starts licking surfaces as well, and even air licking (tongue flicking out of the mouth with the head tilted upwards) this is a behaviour that can be seen during gastric upsets and may indicate your dog either feels sick, is experiencing acid reflux or even has a stomach ulcer. Prompt veterinary attention should be sought. 

Facial signals

Noticeable changes in the facial expression of short-coated breeds, such as pinched features around the forehead, eyes, and muzzle area, along with widened eyes, might hint at a dog in pain. However, detection becomes more challenging with long-haired breeds due to obscured visual signals.


If your dog has started hunching their back, this could indicate spine or tummy pain. Make sure you are aware of your dog's normal posture so that you can detect any changes. Head positions are also important as often a dog with a painful neck may not be able to hold up their head to the normal height; they may even move blankets around to create a “pillow” to support their head in a pain free manner. 

Head pressing

If your dog starts pressing their head against a wall or other firm surface, this can signify a medical emergency. Applying pressure to a painful area can help alleviate symptoms. Head pressing can indicate extreme head pain and could relate to a number of serious conditions from liver disease to head trauma to tumours. Do not delay if you observe your dog pressing their head onto hard objects like a wall, contact your vet immediately so your dog can be checked over as soon as possible.  

General Demeanor

An increase in anxiety levels in a typically calm dog could serve as an indication of concealed discomfort. The correlation between pain and anxiety is noteworthy. Physical pain and emotional pain may present in a similar fashion. If your dog is less settled and tending to get up repeatedly, or pace around the home, this could indicate your dog is in pain.

Respiration rate increases when we are suffering from pain. When dogs pant, yet it is not warm and the dog has been inactive, we should suspect pain and a possible explanation. Panting when it is not hot and the dog has not exercised should be urgently investigated by your vet as this can also indicate heart problems.  


Addressing Concerns About Your Dog

Prompt veterinary consultation is advised upon observing any unexplained behavioural changes. Neglecting these signs could exacerbate the situation, potentially leading to aggressive tendencies and certainly a compromised quality of life for your dog. The earlier you address potential pain the quicker your dog can be relieved of their discomfort and normal behaviour patterns resumed.


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