signs a dog is in pain

A new book will help you answer this question.


By the time my dog Ody was thirteen, he had really begun to look like an old dog. Not only had his dark red coat turned a lighter shade from all the white hairs, but he was covered with lumps and skin tags and was missing quite a few teeth.

Old Man OdySource: Jessica Pierce

He also moved differently. He walked more slowly and tired more quickly. His gait had stiffened, and his hips seemed to have lost much of their mobility. He lowered himself gingerly to the floor, and standing up seemed to require a lot of energy. On several of his “old man” wellness visits to our vet, I probed whether Ody might be in pain. Was he hurting? Or was he just old? The vet seemed unconcerned and assured me it was just arthritis. I pressed on, insisting that I thought Ody was uncomfortable, though I wasn’t sure. The vet gave in, finally (probably to shut me up), and suggested we try Tramadol, a common pain medication for dogs. After a few weeks, nothing had changed for Ody. So we gave up.

Can you count the number of mistakes I or my vet made? At least 6 (and probably many more).

Now I know better. And I feel terrible. Ody probably lived with untreated pain for the last year or two of his life, and probably suffered much more than he should have. Here are several things I got wrong: 1) Ody was displaying several classic signs of pain: trouble lying down and getting up, walking more slowly and tiring easily, joint stiffness. 2) Being stiff is not simply a sign of old age; it is a classic sign of osteoarthritis. 3) Osteorthritis in dogs is nearly always painful (and is very common in elderly dogs). 4) If one pain medication doesn’t work, you try another, and then another, until you find something that does. 5) Combining several pain medications, or combining pain medicines with other forms of pain treatment such as acupuncture and massage, is often an even more effective response. 6) Pain is a moving target and a dog owner needs to be on constant alert for changes—for new sources of pain, or for treatments that begin to lose effectiveness.


Ody and I would both have been much better off if I had had copy of Dr. Mike Petty’s new book, Dr. Petty’s Pain Relief for Dogs. I would have clearly recognized Ody’s behaviors as indicators of pain, would have known how to talk to the vet about what I was seeing (and perhaps in my case, to search out a vet with special interest and training in pain management), and would have been able to help shape a treatment plan to make Ody more comfortable. Dr. Petty’s book helps dog owners with three main issues: determining whether a dog is in pain, finding a vet who will be able to offer your dog the best treatment for pain issues, and knowing which treatments are helping and which aren’t.

Source: WW Norton

 Written specifically with dog owners in mind, Dr. Petty brings his expertise as a veterinary pain specialist to a level that is accessible to a broad range of readers, and offers tools for helping dog owners talk to their veterinarians.article continues after advertisement

In his chapter on recognizing signs of pain, Dr. Petty has a list of “15 Signs Your Dog Is in Pain.” Some of these might be surprising to you: reluctance to walk on slippery surfaces, difficulty going up or down stairs, suddenly sleeping on the floor rather than the couch (not wanting to jump up), attempting to stand up with front legs first, showing abnormal wear on the nails (some worn more than others), an unwillingness to play, and changes in sleep patterns. 

After chapters on the difference between acute and chronic pain, the book delves into common medications that are often prescribed for pain. In Dr. Petty’s view, it is important for a dog’s caregiver to understand how these medications work and what side effects they can have, because we are the ones responsible for giving the medicines, keeping track of how our dog reacts to them, and, ultimately, making judgments about whether side effects are tolerable or overly burdensome to a canine patient. Another chapter explains why combinations of medicines and treatments can be more effective than single treatments, and also why getting ahead of the pain curve is important. Dr. Petty has chapters focusing on muscle pain and itching—two particularly noisome problems for dogs and their caregivers. A series of chapters then teach readers about acupuncture, prosthetics for dogs who have lost a limb, rehabilitation therapy, nutritional therapies, shock waves, and botanical treatments. Dr. Petty also dedicates a chapter to advising against certain forms of treatment, either because they are ineffective or because they are dangerous.

Three of my favorite chapters come toward the end. Chapter 18 is a pain “makeover” for your home and dog, which includes ideas like nonskid socks for homes with slippery floors, rosin on a dog’s footpads (also to help with slippery floors), ramps to help a dog get into a car on down the patio steps, elevated food and water bowls (because bending down to eat can be painful for a dog with osteoarthritis), and water beds. Chapter 19 offers a collection of exercises that owners can do with their dogs, to help maintain mobility, strength, and balance. For example, the “cookie stretches” involve the use of a tasty morsel to encourage a dog to stretch her shoulders, elbows, hips, and hocks. These stretches would be beneficial for a dog with osteoarthritis or hip dysplasia. Chapter 20 teaches owners some simple massage techniques, which can help alleviate pain and can also reduce feelings of anxiety and stress in a dog (and her person!).

In the final chapters, Dr. Petty addresses some tough issues. One chapter, for example, is on the costs of treatment and what to do when effective treatments for pain seem to be out of reach financially. Another chapter explores the uncomfortable terrain of when chronic pain seems to be compromising a dog’s quality of life.article continues after advertisement

I am grateful that Dr. Petty has made this information available to people and the dogs they love. My canine companion Maya is just entering her 13th year of life, and already we’ve had to address some issues with pain and osteoarthritis. Now, though, I feel confident that I am doing what I need to keep her comfortable and active for as long as possible. If you have a dog—and not just an elderly or ill dog, but any dog–I highly recommend that you read this book and have it as a reference on your shelves. 

Hopefully Dr. Petty is planning to write a book on pain relief for cats!  

Originally published on Psychology Today and republished here with the kind permission of the author, Jessica Pierce, Ph.D.

Author’s Books on Amazon

The Last Walk: Reflections on Our Pets at the End of Their Livesblank

Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Petsblank

Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possibleblank

Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animalsblank

The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Ageblank

Editor’s Comments

Signs a dog is in pain can be difficult to spot. This can leave a dog’s owner feeling helpless since they suspect that something is wrong but can readily identify the signs or the appropriate treatment. Dr Petty’s book is intended to help you spot the signs and what to do about them. In short the book will enable you to:

  1. Find out if your dog is in pain
  2. Locate a vet who will be able to offer your dog the best treatment for pain issues
  3. Discover which treatments are helping and which aren’t

This book deserves a place on the bookshelf of all dog owners as a ready reference for the treatment of dog pain.

Is Your Dog In Pain?

Do you find it difficult to tell if your dog is in pain? What signs a dog is in pain have you spotted? Please feel free to share your experiences with all our readers by commenting below or if you prefer by telling us here [email protected].

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Bioethicist and writer Jessica Pierce, Ph.D., is the author of Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets (Chicago, 2016) and The Last Walk: Reflections on Our Pets at the Ends of Their Lives (Chicago, 2012). Additional authored and co-authored books include Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible (New World Library, release date of Feb. 6, 2019, with Marc Bekoff), The Animal's Agenda: Compassion and Coexistence in the Age of Humans (Beacon Press, 2017, with Marc Bekoff), Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals; Contemporary Bioethics: A Reader with Cases; The Ethics of Environmentally Responsible Health Care; and Morality Play: Case Studies in Ethics. Some of the questions she explores in her writings on death and dying in animals are: Do animals have death awareness? Why is euthanasia almost always considered the compassionate end point for our animals, but not for our human companions? Is there ever a good reason to euthanize a healthy dog? Why do people often grieve more deeply for their pets than they do for people?
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