Dogs can be quite adept at hiding the fact that they are feeling pain, and they are far more stoic than humans – especially with chronic or continuous pain such as is caused by osteoarthritis. Studies indicate that 20% of dogs (regardless of age) have osteoarthritis and 80-90% of dogs over the age of seven years have osteoarthritis, often in multiple joints.  Armed with appropriate information, you can become much more aware of subtle signs of pain in your pet. Early recognition means you can seek help for your pet closer to the beginning of the pain cycle, which can create a better outcome for you both.

Chronic pain is the most difficult to recognize (as compared to acute pain) so the focus of this article will concern identifying chronic pain symptoms, especially early recognition.  The earlier the diagnosis of pain, the more quickly the source can be diagnosed, identified and addressed for a more optimal outcome. The longer pain has been present, the harder it is to rein in – it’s not impossible, just more difficult to get under control.  And chronic pain can lead to other medical issues such as muscle loss, decreased joint motion, tendon/ligament restriction and other chronic changes.

Osteoarthritis is far and away the most common cause of chronic pain in dogs. There certainly are others including intervertebral disc disease, which causes back or neck pain, or pain from long standing dental disease and ear infections and, of course, cancer. 

Osteoarthritis is simply degenerative changes in the joints which results in cartilage erosion, inflammation, bone spurs, and fluid accumulation in the joints. Age is not always the cause – osteoarthritis can occur in young pets with poor joint conformation such as hip or elbow dysplasia and secondary to trauma or repetitive movements (Fly Ball, Agility work & other sports). Autoimmune disease is a less common cause of arthritic changes but can be quite severe. Being overweight exacerbates any and all of these orthopedic conditions. Lean dogs live an average of two years longer than overweight dogs and obesity has been proven to exacerbate pain from any source, in both dogs and humans.

So, what are the signs of pain?   Most typically, the first sign may be your dog shows a bit of stiffness when they first get up after resting.  In the early stages, the stiffness will diminish quickly with activity as they “warm up”.  They may have more difficulty getting their rear end up when they try to rise from the floor. You may notice hesitation jumping onto the bed or into the car. They might lag behind you a bit on walks or even limp just a bit after exercise. They may be more hesitant to climb the stairs or simply do it a bit more slowly. They may slip more on slick floor surfaces. They may have changes in behavior such as avoiding children and rowdy younger dogs, even hiding and withdrawing. They may simply be restless at night and pant more, which often means they are having trouble getting comfortable.   These are all signs of onset of osteoarthritis and chronic pain.

Chronic pain causes emotional changes too and does cause depression in dogs, which parallels how chronic pain impacts humans. Depending of the individual pet, the behavior changes may be subtle or more obvious.  Withdrawal from the family is a definite warning sign that something is very wrong and often the culprit is some form of pain. Vocalizing, or crying out, is actually quite uncommon with chronic pain. The pain is a constant, normalizing the condition, so most dogs won’t cry or whimper unless the pain is quite severe or the pain is of a sudden, acute onset. And many dogs won’t vocalize even then. Their ancestors survived by not showing outward evidence of pain or disability to the pack and that may be part of why dogs rarely cry out with chronic pain.

In older dogs, such changes are often shrugged off as simple aging. They aren’t as active, they don’t want to walk as far, they don’t jump up anymore. In truth, the cause is usually arthritis, not just getting older. They aren’t “just slowing down”. These are signals they may have pain or discomfort. The good news is that while you can’t stop the clock and prevent them from aging, you can certainly help them with their pain.

Once the primary condition is identified with a proper diagnosis of the source of discomfort, there are treatments to help with the pain.  Your veterinarian should be able to identify whether the problem is internal (metabolic) or pain-related and recommend solutions.  Pain management plans may include medication, acupuncture, therapeutic laser, physical therapy, supplements to improve joint health and other approaches. Most often, therapy includes several options as multi-modal treatment often provides the best response by attacking the pain from different angles with multiple strategies. But that huge first step, is simply recognizing your dog may be in pain. 

Hopefully these tools will help guide you to recognize the symptoms pain early and optimize their treatment and get them back to feeling better quickly. You are their hero for recognizing early on that something is just not quite right and seeking professional help for them.

Below are some other resources that may be helpful:

Canine Arthritis Resources and Education

Video Link:

Elizabeth F. Baird, DVM, CVPP, CCRT, cVMA
Steele Pain Management & Rehabilitation Center

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