A dog lying down on a table being examined by a doctor at the veterinarian’s office.

How to Tell If Your Dog Is in Pain

Pet parents are usually skilled at understanding what their dog is trying to tell them —because their dog makes it pretty clear what they want. Scratching at the back door means they want to go out. Dropping the ball at your feet over and over means they want to play ball. Jumping onto your lap means it’s time for snuggles.

Knowing when your dog is in pain can be a little trickier, though. Some signs are obvious, like when they’re whimpering, yowling or favoring a leg, but other signs of pain can be more subtle. Some dogs may instinctually try to hide their pain so they don’t look weak to “predators,” as their ancestors would have done thousands of years ago. To help you recognize when your dog is in pain, we’ll go over the types, signs to watch out for and how to manage it.

Short- and Long-Term Pain

Dogs (and people) can suffer from two types of pain: acute and chronic. Acute pain starts suddenly and lasts for a short amount of time, although it can become chronic pain if it’s not treated immediately. It’s often caused by trauma, surgery or an illness and is treated by resolving the source of the problem (e.g., removing a sore tooth or resting the area). A short course of pain relief medication prescribed by your veterinarian may also provide relief.

Chronic pain can come on gradually and may last for months, years or a lifetime. It can get better or worse in severity over time and is typically managed with medications, physical therapy or other interventions. Arthritis is an example of chronic pain that can’t be cured and gets worse over time.

If chronic pain goes untreated, the nervous system can become overly sensitized to it, lowering the threshold for pain sensation. This means that a nerve signal meant to relay a small amount of pain is perceived as much more painful, or something that wouldn’t normally cause pain, does. Early recognition and treatment of pain is important to prevent pain perception problems.

Behavioral Changes Could Indicate Pain

A change in your dog’s behavior can be one of the signs that they’re in pain. If they’re constantly licking at a spot on their body, it’s probably because it hurts. If they have a sore limb, they may limp or refuse to put weight on it. If your normally mellow, friendly dog starts growling or showing aggression, it might be because you touched a painful area. If they’re not eating normally, it may be because their mouth hurts.

Other signs of pain can be a little vaguer. A dog in pain may pace, pant, whimper, have an unusual posture or spend less time interacting with their family. If they start having accidents in the house, it could be because they can’t move fast enough or climb stairs to go outside. We’ve listed some more signs of pain in dogs in the graphic below.

An interior graphic listing out signs of pain in dogs.

Human Medications Can Hurt Your Dog

If you notice your dog is in pain, it may be tempting to give them some over-the-counter human pain-relief medication. If it’s safe for people, doesn’t that mean it’s safe for dogs? Nope, it’s not. Dogs metabolize drugs differently than people, so even though over-the-counter drugs are generally safe for humans at the correct dose, you should never give your dog human medication unless your veterinarian has directed you to.

Medications like aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen and acetaminophen can be harmful or deadly to dogs. Some human non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can cause gastrointestinal ulcers, kidney failure, liver failure, bleeding problems and neurological problems in dogs, especially when they’re given in high doses. You can learn more about people medication hazards in our article about how human medicine can hurt your dog’s kidneys.

Visit Your Veterinarian if Your Dog Is in Pain

If you think your dog is in pain, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian as soon as possible. Keeping a journal of how often they display pain signs and what they were doing at the time can be helpful for your veterinarian. Taking a video of your dog’s behavior at home can also help your veterinarian see the change in their behavior and help diagnose the issue.

Your veterinarian will give them a thorough exam and discuss the best options to reduce their pain as much as possible. If they prescribe medication, make sure you follow the directions. They have prescribed the medication to provide the best relief for your dog, so administer the medication as directed. Our article on giving pets medicine has seven tips and tricks for easier medication administration.

You can make your dog’s home environment as comfortable as possible by providing a comfy padded bed and adding ramps to stairs to make it easier for them to go up and down. If they’re having trouble walking, try to keep them on the same level of your house, if possible. If they’re having chronic pain from arthritis, keeping them a healthy weight will make sure they don’t put added stress on their joints.


Some dogs will yelp and tell the whole neighborhood if they get hurt, while others will try and hide their pain. You know your dog best, so if their behavior seems a little “off,” take them to your veterinarian for a checkup.


RELATED POST: Are You Prepared for a Pet Health Emergency?


The information in this blog has been developed with our veterinarian and is designed to help educate pet parents. If you have questions or concerns about your pet's health or nutrition, please talk with your veterinarian.


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