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Ask the Vet: How do I know if my dog is hurting?

By By Allison Dascoli
For the Gazette-Mail
AP file photo

“Their pain is our pain.” This is the slogan of the International Veterinary Academy of Pain Management, which has deemed September as Animal Pain Awareness Month.

I feel it is our responsibility as veterinarians to educate owners about the obvious and not-so-obvious signs of pain in their pets. Pet owners, above all else, want their animals to be free of pain and happy. But often, owners don’t really understand the signs their dogs show when they are hurting.

So now is a great time to go over some signs of pain in dogs, in hopes of catching a few out there who are hurting and not getting treated.

The obvious signs of pain in the dog that owners understand are crying, shaking and panting. These can include dogs with neck and back injuries that just scream when touched or moved, or dogs that have been hit by a car or attacked by another dog. We always see them, often as emergencies.

Other signs are less obvious. They include changes in the way dogs walk. Comfortable dogs walk on four legs. Period. Dogs with orthopedic issues will walk, to some degree, on three legs. They will not cry out, but they won’t bear full weight on a leg. They may put a little weight on it, but if a leg isn’t fully weight-bearing, then that counts as a painful condition. These dogs need to be seen.

Look at their feet for clues if you are unsure. Sometimes their nails will be worn oddly from foot to foot, or even on the same foot, as they try to compensate for their hurting leg.

A dog in pain will also walk with a head bob, lifting its head up when putting its bad foot down. Again, the dog is compensating the best way it can and probably will not let you know that they are hurting. By watching them, you can pick up on this sign.

In addition to watching them walk, watch dogs move when jumping. Remember when your pet used to gracefully float up onto the couch? If they now have to come right up to it and rock a few times before clumsily getting up there, that’s a sign of pain.

Stairs are the same story. Pets hesitate and think about going up the stairs for a second before carefully plodding up. Some pets who have slipped and fallen on a set of stairs may suddenly not even want to go up the stairs again. I had a pet that would stare at the front steps then walk around the house to go in sliding glass doors instead, probably due to a fall.

If they’re hurting, older pets will also change the way they lay down at night. They often circle longer before lying down and sleep for shorter times before changing positions all throughout the night. Some older pets will walk from area to area looking to get into a comfortable position in different rooms.

When they do get up, older pets with painful back ends will shift their weight more toward their front legs and appear to actually lean forward on their front legs until they get those painful rear legs moving again.

Then there are dogs’ behavioral changes if they’re in pain. They may be more withdrawn and want to play less. It hurts them to play as hard and as long as they used to. They can be aggressive to humans and to beloved housemates who want to play and snuggle with them. Even changes in their desire to be petted and groomed can be a sign that there is now, sadly, pain at your touch.

If a dog’s mouth hurts, there may be specific signs. Dogs with oral pain will eat less and, over time, lose weight. But they never stop eating, ever. They will start to drop food or chew oddly. They can even start to prefer a canned or watered-down diet to their typical crunchy meal. Some dogs will actually paw at their faces.

If you notice any of these signs, then your pet may be uncomfortable. The key is you. Dogs will not tell you. They will not always cry or bleed or shake. You have to observe your pet daily to see if anything changes. Owners are veterinarians’ eyes and ears at home, allowing us to advocate for their pets so we can put them on the road to better comfort.

So go find your furry friend and just watch him or her move, eat and sleep. You may not notice a change today but one day you will. As a profession, we want to see you on that day. Good luck.

Send questions for Dr. Allison Dascoli to “Ask the Vet,” Charleston Gazette-Mail, 1001 Virginia St. E., Charleston, WV 25301 or email them to askthevet@wvgazettemail.com. Comments or suggestions can be submitted the same way.

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