How To Tell If a Dog Is in Pain and What You Can Do To Help

Aja Senestraro, DVM
By Aja Senestraro, DVM. Reviewed by Jennifer Coates, DVM on Dec. 12, 2022

No pet parent wants their dog to be in pain. But because they instinctively try to hide their pain and they can’t tell us when they are hurting, it’s up to us to recognize the subtle signs and to get them the help they need. 

Many behaviors and physical changes can indicate that a dog is in pain. Learn how to recognize the signs of pain in dogs, what causes it, what you can do to help, and how to discuss your concerns with your vet. 

Signs a Dog Is in Pain

Dogs feel pain just like humans do, but they don’t always show it in the same ways. A dog’s pain can become evident through physical symptoms, behavioral changes, and/or mobility issues. These might be subtle, so stay vigilant and never be afraid to ask your vet about anything that might signal that your dog is in pain. 

Physical Symptoms 

When a dog is experiencing pain, you might notice subtle physical signs or changes in how they carry their body. Here are a few physical signs of pain in dogs: 

  • Tight or twitching muscles 

  • Shaking or trembling 

  • Arched back 

  • Holding their head below their shoulders 

  • Panting 

Behavioral Changes 

A dog in pain tends to behave differently than what’s usual for them. Just like us, dogs tend to be crankier when they are experiencing pain. Here are a few behavioral signs that might indicate that your pet is experiencing pain: 

  • Not wanting to be touched 

  • Excessive licking 

  • Excessive vocalization 

  • Restlessness 

  • Aggression 

  • Changes in sleeping habits 

Mobility Issues 

If a dog has sustained an injury or is dealing with arthritis, you may notice changes in their mobility. Here are common signs of pain in dogs that affect how they get around: 

  • Limping 

  • Walking slower or refusing to walk 

  • Reluctance to jump or use stairs 

  • Difficulties lying down or rising 

Some of these signs of pain can be seen with serious medical or behavioral problems, so always discuss changes in behavior or normal activity with your veterinarian. 

What Causes Pain in Dogs? 

There are two types of pain: acute and chronic. Something that just happened, like an injury or illness, causes acute pain. Things that have been going on longer, like arthritis or dental disease, cause chronic pain. 

Anything that damages cells or creates inflammation can cause pain in dogs including: 

  • Ear, skin, and urinary tract infections 

  • Severe stomach upset 

  • Some kinds of cancer 

  • Surgeries 

  • And much, much more! 

How to Help a Dog That’s in Pain 

If you think your dog is suffering,  know that there are a lot of different things you can do to help them start to feel better. Here are some steps you can take to help your dog cope with pain and work towards relief. 

Make an Appointment With Your Veterinarian 

First, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian to figure out what the problem is. If your dog is in severe pain or has other scary symptoms, get them to a veterinarian immediately. 

Your veterinarian will need to perform a physical exam and run some diagnostic tests. To pinpoint the problem, your vet may need to do X-rays, blood tests, or an ultrasound. 

Stop or Modify Physical Activities With Your Pet 

If your pet is only showing signs of pain during an activity, avoid it until you can talk to your veterinarian. 

Your veterinarian will be able to help you figure out how to best help your pet, whether it is stopping that activity altogether or establishing modifications that will minimize pain. 

Simple pain-reducing modifications to common activities can include:  

  • Taking shorter walks 

  • Using a ramp or steps 

  • Raising food/water dishes to a more comfortable height 

For some instances of acute pain, these changes might be temporary, but for some chronic pain conditions, they may be long-term, or at least until other treatments have a chance to take full effect. 

Keep a Record of the Signs You’re Seeing 

We’ve all been through the scenario where we see certain signs at home, but by the time we get to the vet, everything looks fine. 

That’s why it can be helpful to take pictures or a video of your pet when they are showing signs of pain or discomfort, which they’re more likely to do at home than when they are stressed out at the veterinary clinic. Write down when they occur and what your pet was doing at the time. 

This helps your vet understand the scenarios in which your dog is experiencing pain as well as the types of symptoms and signs of pain they are displaying. 

Having video and pictures of your dog can also help your veterinarian to make the proper modifications to your routine and recommend other treatment options to help minimize the pain. 

Explore All of the Treatment Options 

There are many veterinary treatments that can eliminate or reduce both acute and chronic pain. Talk with your veterinarian to understand what your dog’s treatment options are. 

The most common treatments for pain include: 

  • Medications including nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories, opioids, and others 

  • Surgery 

  • Physical rehabilitation 

  • Laser therapy 

  • Acupuncture 

  • Chiropractic treatment 

  • Regenerative medicine such as stem cell therapy 

  • Massage 

  • Supplements and herbal therapies 

  • Ice or heat packs 

Ask Questions and Don’t Be Afraid to Get a Second Opinion 

Here are some questions you might ask your vet: 

  • How will you manage my pet’s pain before, during, and after surgery? 

  • How will a specific treatment help their pain? 

  • Can a supplement help reduce pain? 

  • What modifications can I make at home to help them? 

  • What else we can do for their pain? 

You can also always contact another general practitioner vet; integrative vet; veterinary pain practitioner; or veterinary specialists like a behaviorist, surgeon, oncologist, or neurologist for a second opinion and additional treatment options. 

Be Your Dog’s Advocate 

Your dog depends on you to be her voice to get her the help she needs. 

So if you think your dog is showing any signs of pain, including any changes in routine, preferences, and behaviors, set up an appointment with your vet as soon as you can. 

Even if the signs resolve, you’ll want to keep the appointment to be sure whatever was causing the pain does not become a long-term problem. 

If your pet is injured, ill, or showing multiple or severe signs of pain, don’t hesitate to take them to an emergency vet clinic to get their pain treated as soon as possible. 

You are your dog’s best health advocate. 

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Aja Senestraro, DVM


Aja Senestraro, DVM


Dr. Aja Senestraro is a holistic veterinarian based in Seattle, Washington. As the founder of Sea to Sky Holistic Vet she is privileged to...

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