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Behavioral Signs of Pain
Your dog may be saying “Ouch!”
Dogs with pain

For the first couple of weeks, our dog Bugsy enjoyed playing with our foster puppy. Then he changed, tiring of her quickly and often avoiding her, even growling if she approached him while he was on his bed. He stopped playing in the snow with her, and would go to his bed rather than lie next to her on the rug. We figured that when she left, he would stop being sulky and return to his usual upbeat, playful self.

When Bugsy remained grumpy after her departure, we suspected that something was wrong. And it was. The veterinarian determined that he had a partial tear in his anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL (a knee ligament), and was probably in considerable pain. The way Bugsy was acting should have told me that he was hurting, because although most dogs are not obvious about it, there are many behavioral signs of pain.

1. Changes in behavior. Any change can mean something is wrong. If your dog is less energetic or less cheerful than usual, doesn’t engage in the activities he usually enjoys, acts restless, becomes unusually clingy, or stops socializing as much or as happily as he used to, he may be experiencing discomfort.

2. Nighttime grouchiness. Even minor injuries or maladies can be exacerbated by the day’s activities, resulting in a cranky pup in the evening, when things slow down.

3. Good days and bad days. If your dog acts like his normal self some days but is grumpy, aggressive or otherwise different on other days, pain may be the cause.

4. Unusual behavior after strenuous activity. Dogs who exhibit unexpected behavior after they have had more exercise than usual may be in pain. An injury or any kind of soreness may become worse with additional exercise, so if your dog is predictably out of sorts on such days, pain may be the culprit.

5. Suddenly behaving aggressively. If a fully mature dog suddenly exhibits aggressive behavior, it may be because he’s in pain. I’m especially alert to the sudden onset of aggression in a dog over the age of four, because dogs that age (or older) with no history of aggression rarely behave this way unless something is wrong. There are exceptions, of course, but out-of-the-blue aggression in an older dog can often be linked to pain, in my experience.

6. Unwilling to play. If a dog who usually takes any opportunity to play with reckless abandon ceases to be interested in playtime, it could be a sign that something hurts.

7. Avoiding other dogs. Sometimes when dogs are in pain, they don’t want other dogs near them, especially if those dogs are young, bouncy or exuberant. If it is inconsistent with a dog’s personality to shy away from other dogs, doing so might mean he’s protecting an alreadytender area.

8. Loss of appetite. A dog’s refusal to eat, which can have many causes, will almost always result in a trip to the veterinarian. Though sometimes the diagnosis is serious—liver failure or cancer, for example—not eating can also be a sign of pain from other less-alarming conditions.

9. Reacting badly to being touched. If your dog reacts negatively to a touch that he would normally like (or ignore), that reaction may be due to pain. Typical negative reactions include yelping, leaping, whining, licking your hand, pulling away or even growling. A painbased reaction will usually only be displayed when a specific spot is touched.

If you have any reason to suspect that your dog may be in pain, make an appointment to see your vet right away, as we did with Bugsy. It was a relief to know exactly what was going on with him, and to be able to ease his misery. Only a veterinarian can diagnose a medical condition, but with astute observations of the behavioral warning signs, you can help save your dog from unnecessary suffering by seeking speedy medical help.

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 59: Apr/May 2010

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Bark columnist and a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist specializing in the evaluation and treatment of serious behavior problems in the domestic dog.

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