Most people are aware of the main signs that a dog may be experiencing pain. Lameness, stiffness, lack of interest in life, unwilling to be stroked or groomed, and general grumpiness are all things that make us concerned our dogs may be experiencing pain. But some signs are a little bit more subtle than that, or not things we commonly associate with pain.
1. Coat changes
Look out for areas of your dogs’ coat that look ‘different’ to the rest. This might look like wavy areas on a smooth coated dog, sudden tight curls, hair lying in the wrong direction, dry or rough patches, or areas of scurf. Where the fascia in an area is dysfunctional, the skin tightens and the hair follicles then can’t behave normally, so the angle of the hairs, the length they grow to, or the condition of them is altered.
2. Your dog is very ticklish
We’ve all experienced it when we stroke a dog’s back, and they start wriggling around and scratching themselves on you. Far from being a sign of a ticklish dog, this can indicate tight fascia and muscular issues in the area. The act of stroking irritates the tiny nerve endings throughout the fascia causing the dog to wriggle around in response to relieve the sensations they’re feeling. Whilst most dogs do this a little bit as just like in humans it’s very rare that a dog doesn’t have any tightness in their muscles at all, the more they wriggle around and scratch against you the more likely they are experiencing tight fascia.
3. Loss of appetite
It’s common to think of loss of appetite as being related to illness. The vast majority of owners would go to their vet if this continued for a while to check for illness. Tests for various things come back with no conclusion, food is changed to something really tasty and the dog eats a little more. But the reluctance to eat could be down to pain when eating rather than not feeling like food. A dog with neck pain may find it extremely uncomfortable to bend their neck down to eat from a bowl. And a dog with back pain may have been hunched and holding himself tight for so long that his abdominal muscles start to hurt, causing discomfort when eating. Tasty food makes the dog want to eat again because the smell and desire for it will override the pain.
4. Resting less
We assume a dog in pain would sleep more and be less active. A restless, always on the move dog that may even be bordering on hyperactivity is assumed to be bored and in need of more exercise, stimulation or training. Actually it may be that your dog just can’t get comfortable, pain prevents him from finding a comfortable position to rest in, and interrupts his sleep, and so he paces and moves around searching for that elusive place or position where he can get comfortable.
5. Behaviour improves
We assume a dog in pain might become ‘naughtier’ and would expect to see them becoming less social and grumpier. While that can be the case, sometimes a dog will appear better behaved. They stop running off on walks. They walk nicely on a lead. They stop jumping on the furniture, or on guests. They stop wrestling with other dogs in the house and settle quietly. If you’ve genuinely been working hard on training these things then your training has probably just paid off. But if you honestly know you haven’t been working on training, it could just be that your dog is avoiding things that hurt. Running hurts, so it is easier to stay close. Pulling on a lead hurts, it’s easier to walk nicely.
6. Sporting performance ‘improves’
A rare one, but it can happen. Has your slightly wild, pole knocking, contact leaping dog calmed right down and is now easy to handle, moving at a calmer pace and keeping poles up? Hopefully this is your training paying off and not a cause for concern. But some dogs when experiencing pain will start to move more carefully, and with more consideration for their bodies, making them easier to handle. And when they are thinking more they may try harder to clear poles, again to avoid pain. Suddenly clear rounds come and it looks like the dog has massively improved. But ask yourself whether this is genuinely due to your training or whether this might just be out of character for your dog.
7. Reactivity to dogs
The reason that all good behaviourists will ask for a full health check and vet referral before working with your dog is that often problem behaviours have their route in pain. We expect that a dog in pain might become grumpy or anti social when in close proximity to playful dogs. But often reactivity builds slowly, and might be seen by your dog reacting when on a lead from the other side of the road. At this point you’re stumped by the behaviour and genuinely believe it doesn’t have a particular cause.
What you don’t realise is that your dog might have been jumped on playfully while in pain a couple of times and given small warnings to the other dogs. They’ve then realised that dogs equal pain, so it’s safer to make the thing that causes pain go away, by barking and growling from a distance. This is effective, so the dog adopts it as a strategy, and as with everything the more they practice the better they get, and you have a dog warning other dogs to go away from bigger distances. This needs behavioural help, but also a thorough check for pain first.
8. Noise phobia
Studies in to noise phobia where dogs are extremely sensitive to loud or even everyday noises, have been done recently and have linked increasing sensitivity to noises to musculoskeletal pain. The short summary is that when a dog hears a loud or unexpected noise they jump or tense themselves just as humans would. If the dog is suffering with pain, that action causes further pain. They associate the pain with the noise itself, not their reaction to it, and begin to fear loud noises for fear of feeling further pain. The full article can be found here https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5816950/
Licking an area often isn’t noticed at first. Pay attention to where your dog licks or overgrooms, or times you notice wet or sore spots. While it can have other causes such as allergies or boredom, licking is often associated with pain. It is a self soothing behaviour as the licking at an area interrupts pain signals, a bit like we might rub our elbow if we’ve banged it. But the pain signals return once the licking stops, so the licking restarts, and it can become an obsessive behaviour, leading to complications such as lick granuloma which are very tough to heal. Any repetitive licking does need to be investigated quickly before getting to that stage.
10. Calming signals or displacement behaviours when being touched
Pay attention to your dogs face when you’re stroking, cuddling or grooming them. Most dogs, unless they’ve had warning signals ignored for a very long time, don’t growl or bite straight away as a warning. An uncomfortable dog might show ‘calming signals’ such as yawning, lip licking and whale eye. Pay attention to these, it’s a sign they’re not happy. If they’ve always done this, your dog may just not like close contact, respect that and give them space. But if it’s new, it could be because touching certain areas hurts. And a dog who tries to cuddle, lick or stick their tongue in your ear when you do certain things is usually trying to distract you and make you stop touching the bit that hurts.