Could your dog’s behavioural changes be due to pain?

If your dog starts to misbehave or act differently, it can be worrying and confusing to try to figure out why. Although there can be many possible reasons, it is important to rule out a medical cause first. Unfortunately, in some cases pain could be to blame, so bringing them to see one of our vets as soon as you notice a problem means they will hopefully be able to get them back on the straight and narrow. Here, we will look at the signs that may indicate that your dog is struggling, why this can impact on their behaviour and what we can do about it.

Wouldn’t I recognise if my dog was in pain?

Most people can recognise physical signs that their dog may be in pain, such as limping or not wanting to (or being able to) jump on or off the sofa or bed. But often, the signs can be much more subtle. When thinking about how pain can affect a dog’s mental health, certain behaviours can give clues that may warrant investigation:

Apparent unprovoked aggression

It makes sense that a dog in pain may not tolerate being approached or touched. Initial warning signs could include moving away, not making eye contact, licking their lips, or growling. If the warning signs are not recognised, it could lead to the dog snapping or biting.

Toileting inside

This can often be seen in older, arthritic dogs who may not be able to get up and out to the garden in time, so although the cause is actually a physical problem, a lot of owners see it as a behavioural change.

Excessive licking

If a joint is painful, a dog may lick at it, sometimes obsessively. They can also lick at other parts of their body as a self-soothing or distraction method. This works by releasing endorphins that make them feel better, but it is still important to determine if pain is present. If not addressed, this can cause skin disease – and the underlying issue (such as arthritis) may easily be missed.

Hiding away

Typically seen more with cats, but dogs in pain can also want to hide away and avoid the usual family interactions. This may be because they don’t want to physically be touched but also can be because they are just not feeling great, and the pain is starting to affect their mental health.

Disruption to sleep patterns

Just as with humans, dogs in pain can suffer with their sleep. They may find it hard to get comfortable in the first place or be woken by their pain. It has also been shown that the perception of pain increases at night due to a lack of other distractions. Unfortunately, it can become a vicious cycle, as sleep deprivation can have the same effect in making pain appear worse.

Increased clinginess

Dogs will often see their owners as their ‘safe space’ and so are likely to seek out their attention if they are in pain or feel unwell. Experiencing pain can make dogs feel vulnerable and anxious so they are more likely to seek reassurance.

The reason dogs will show these signs is simple – they can’t talk. If we are in pain, we can let others know so that they can help us. Our pets can’t, so it’s important to recognise signs such as those mentioned above and think whether they could be your dog’s way of telling you they’re not happy.

If in doubt – book in to see our vets

An initial veterinary consultation could reveal the problem. By taking a history from you, observing your dog and then physically examining them, we can often determine if they are showing signs of pain. Sometimes, we may not be able to specifically pinpoint the cause or location of the pain, but more often than not, we will quickly be able to narrow down the list of possible causes. At that point, further investigations may be suggested, such as blood samples or imaging like ultrasound or x-rays. Another option may be a pain-relief trial. It is important during such a trial, that you’re able to give us as much feedback information as possible, even completing questionnaires or providing a diary of your dogs’ behaviour. This can all give us clues to point us towards a diagnosis and to allow us to treat them appropriately and alleviate their pain.

As a responsible pet owner, you must advocate for your dog. Even the most subtle change in behaviour could be a sign of pain, especially in an otherwise stoic dog. Very often, the smallest piece of throw-away information is actually the key clue to solving the problem, so be alert to any changes and don’t simply assume it’s ‘old age’ or ‘stress’. Your dog will thank you for it.

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