Imagine your dog suffering in silence, unable to express the pain they feel. It’s a heart-wrenching thought, isn’t it? But here’s the reality: chronic pain in dogs is often an invisible struggle and it’s up to us to figure out if our dog is experiencing any pain.
Unfortunately, dogs can’t tell us how they feel, so how can you recognize chronic pain in your dog? And how does chronic pain affect their behaviour and the relationship you have with your dog?
We don’t have any good data on how many dogs experience chronic pain, but the number could be significant.
Especially older dogs may be more likely to be in pain, due to age-related conditions and changes in cognitive processes. Also, dogs that have been bred with flat faces (French Bulldogs for example) or that have had their ears or tails mutilated may experience chronic pain and discomfort.
Common causes of chronic pain in dogs are osteoarthritis (degenerative joint disease often resulting from hip dysplasia), neuropathic pain, cruciate ligament rupture, patella luxation, and pancreatitis. So, if your dog has any of these conditions, it’s essential to talk to your vet about pain management.
The link between pain and behaviour
What most people don’t know, however, is that there’s a link between chronic pain and behavioural problems in dogs. This is because chronic pain changes the dog’s mood. Chronic pain can lead to feelings of frustration and anxiety in dogs, as they struggle with everyday activities. This, in turn, can greatly impact their overall quality of life.
Some dogs may even start to show aggressive behaviours when they are in pain 1. They may seem more impulsive, react to touch with aggression, and show a defensive body posture more often. This may be due to the lowering of the aggression threshold due to the stress resulting from the pain.
How to recognize chronic pain in dogs
Recent years have seen a surge in the importance of pain management in veterinary medicine, and it’s an area that needs more attention.
Gauging chronic pain in a clinical setting can be quite a challenge because it’s a bit like solving a puzzle. The subtle changes in behaviour, which can vary depending on how long the pain’s been there and how intense it is, might be one reason why it’s tricky to assess pain in the clinic. On top of that, dogs may have this protective instinct to hide their pain.
Even though there are various tools available for owners to assess chronic pain, most of these are primarily tailored for dogs with orthopaedic issues and may not be suitable for other types of pain.
Therefore, experts are now suggesting that keeping an eye on your dogs’ everyday behaviour and body language is a more reliable way to understand if they’re experiencing pain.
Of course, this depends on your ability as the owner to spot pain in your dog, so that you can effectively manage your dog’s pain.
That’s where this exciting new study comes in 2!
New study reveals that dog owners can recognize signs of chronic pain in their dog.
Researchers are diving deep into understanding what signs and signals our dogs give us when they’re experiencing pain.
124 dog owners took part in this study. They filled out an online survey that covered everything from their dog’s age and demographics to specific behaviours and even the position of their dog’s ears and tail.
And guess what?
Out of 35 different pain-related behaviours and postural changes, 13 of them were reported significantly more often by owners who believed their dogs might be in pain.
Most of these changes had to do with the way their dogs move and act in their daily lives.
For example, owners picked up on shifts in their dog’s ear and tail positions during daily activities or changes in body position. Previous research has already shown that dogs express their emotions, such as fear or happiness, by changing their ear and tail postures 3.
Owners could detect pain-related changes in ear postures quite easily. Yet, they appeared to pick up on alterations in tail position primarily when their dogs engage in unusual activities, such as walking on slippery or shiny surfaces or navigating stairs.
Therefore, changes in ear postures may be a more suitable indicator for owners to detect pain in their pets.
So, what do the ears of dogs in pain look like? In the case of mild pain, the ears are pointed backwards, and may even be lying flat in the head/neck. This is often combined with raised eyebrows and looks like a typical ‘sad’ face 3. More severe pain is characterized by semi-closed eyes, tension in the cheeks and vocalizations.
Common facial expressions and ear postures by dogs in pain are shown below. These may vary depending on the intensity of the pain and the dog breed.
In addition, self-oriented licking, excessive itching, and excessive biting of body parts were reported significantly more often in the dogs experiencing pain. It seems that a common underlying reason for repetitive behaviours may be pain.
Dogs in pain also showed reduced social behaviours, such as tail wagging and greeting behaviours. This was a surprising finding because it shows that – in contrast to previous suggestions – dogs do not try to hide their pain.
The findings also revealed that younger dogs displayed more behavioural changes, while senior dogs showed signs like reduced activity, trouble walking and standing, difficulty turning, and stiffness during walks.
So, it seems it is easier to detect pain in younger dogs, and owners may struggle to detect pain in older dogs. This might be because it’s tough for owners to distinguish between typical signs of ageing and those related to pain since pain-related behavioural changes tend to develop gradually in dogs.
Overall, this research is reassuring – pet parents can recognize pain-related behavioural changes in their dogs. Owners tend to notice these changes mostly during everyday activities, especially during playtime and when dogs shift positions.
However, owners often miss the more subtle changes brought about by pain in their dogs until these changes become unmistakably apparent, much like their perceptions of stress indicators.
So, what's the big takeaway here?
Owners play a vital role in assessing chronic pain. But here’s the catch – to accurately detect pain in our pets, we need to understand their pain-related behaviours.
Measuring and managing pain in dogs is like a secret code to ensure their quality of life and overall welfare. As a dog owner, you’re a crucial part of this code!
From this study, it seems that owners mostly detect changes in movement-based activities during the daily routines of their dogs. This discovery could be a game-changer when it comes to creating tools for pet parents to assess chronic pain.
Some experts have previously pointed out that owners need to be trained to read dog pain-related behaviours accurately. But let’s be real, not every dog owner can go through extensive training. So, it makes more sense to develop pain scores that even those without formal training can use.
By paying more attention to behavioural cues, we can develop reliable chronic pain scales for dogs, with input from you, their owners – the ones who know them best!
For many other species, pain grimace scales based on facial expressions and ear postures have already been developed to accurately assess pain. However, such facial pain scales do not exist yet for dogs 3.
One issue that remains to be investigated in my opinion, is whether flat-faced breeds or dogs with mutilated tails and ears express equally clear signs of pain compared to other dogs. If not, this could be a considerable welfare concern.
Gaining insight into pain at an earlier stage not only safeguards the well-being of our beloved dogs but also enhances their quality of life. In the end, all we want is the best for our dogs!
- Camps, T., Amat, M., Mariotti, V. M., Le Brech, S. & Manteca, X. Pain-related aggression in dogs: 12 clinical cases. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 7, 99–102 (2012).
- Demirtas, A. et al. Dog owners’ recognition of pain-related behavioral changes in their dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 62, 39–46 (2023).
- Mota-Rojas, D. et al. Current Advances in Assessment of Dog’s Emotions, Facial Expressions, and Their Use for Clinical Recognition of Pain. Animals 11, 3334 (2021).