Is your dog painful? The five symptoms you might overlook


Have you performed a physical exam on your dog lately? Be sure to download our physical exam cheat sheet and use it as a quick reference guide. Get it by clicking here. 


Since we have been on the topic of knowing your dog’s “normal” I figured we would slip this super important topic right here.

It is a very important and not always obvious issue that unfortunately our dogs will all face at some point or another.

And that is: recognizing when your dog is in pain.

We can’t always rely on our dogs to tell us when they are in pain. At least not in the way that we are conditioned to recognize pain. Which is by complaining about it.

What do I mean by this? Sometimes our dogs can show us very settle symptoms of pain that can be easily overlooked.

The point that I am making here is that there seems to be some confusion surrounding the actual symptoms of discomfort in dogs. And as a small animal veterinarian I witness this first hand on a daily basis.


Let me give you an example.

There have been countless number of times where I go to perform a routine, yearly exam on a dog. The owner states everything is going great at home. No questions. No concerns. 

I then diagnose the dog with severe periodontal disease.

Now I am going to mount my soap box here for a minute, so bear with me.

Have you ever had a tooth ache? Or worse, have you ever had a tooth root abscess? Was it painful? You bet your ass it is.

So, in this particular scenario I can smell the dog’s breath the moment I walk in the room. I begin my exam (I always start at the head) and the dog is reluctant for me to look in his mouth.  I lift up the lip to show the owner where several teeth have fallen out. Several of the teeth that are still in there are loose- some are just wiggling slightly and have bony attachment, others are literally hanging on by the gum tissue. There is tartar so thick it needs to be cracked off. The gum line is red, inflamed, and is so diseased that it is bleeding and receding- which is exposing the roots of the teeth.

I tell the owner that it is very severe, will require surgery, and that their dog is in pain.

The owner then says, “well he doesn’t act painful, he is still eating, and he never cries or whimpers.”

I then start my spiel on survival instincts in animals and how they aren’t always programmed to show symptoms of pain like we are.

Now this example is extreme, but I use it here to show you that even dogs who are in SEVERE PAIN can do a great job of masking it. And the onset of symptoms can be so settle and so gradual that the owner just begins recognizing it as their dog’s new "normal."

The happy ending to this story usually goes like this: We perform a dental cleaning and oral surgery to remove all the infected teeth. And ten days after surgery after the mouth is healed the owner reports that the dog is now acting like a puppy again.

Amazing right?

And that is just it- animals might be in pain and they won’t always show it.

Animals do themselves a huge disservice by hiding their pain. But they do it. Partly because it’s instinct and partly because they aim to please. Which is really heart breaking if you think about it. Our dogs want to be happy for us, so they mask their pain.

So, this is my long-winded way of letting you all know that our dogs can be sneaky. Their pain isn’t always going to be obvious. Sometimes we have to play detective. We must advocate for their health.

So here they are: the 5 not so obvious ways your dog might be telling you he or she in pain:

1) He sleeps more.

This can be oh so settle. And if your dog is middle aged to senior we might try and attribute this sleeping more to the fact that they are getting older and “quieting down.” And this might in part be true, but it is most definitely something to bring to your veterinarian’s attention. It could be mild arthritis, but that in itself is something you want to stay ahead of.

2) He eats less.

Keeping a journal or log of your dog’s weight is so important. Especially since some dogs are only weighed once yearly at their physical exam. If your dog is dropping weight and you haven’t been trying to get the weight off this could be a red flag that their appetite has changed slightly. It might not be an obvious change. Maybe he is just leaving a few pieces of kibble behind. Never the less it could indicate that something is wrong.

3) He’s not as active as he used to be.

Maybe he is more reluctant to jump in the truck? Notice he isn’t retrieving as long as he used to? Does he get winded or tire out sooner? This can also look like a dog who no longer plays with his toys. Or isn’t quite as social as he used to be. Definitely take note of this. Once again, if you notice these changes It might be useful to start logging them – note the duration of the symptoms, time of year, weather, and what your dog is doing differently so you have a reference to refer back to.

4) He is more anxious, agitated, pacing, or panting.

These changes can mean lots of different things. But they can also point to the fact that your dog is painful. If you notice the above symptoms you should definitely bring them to your veterinarian’s attention. If you decide to monitor these symptoms at home and they do not improve, they are severe, or persisting, he or she might be due for a checkup.

5) His resting vital signs are higher than normal.

Higher or lower heart rates, respiration rates, and temps can, once again, mean a lot of different things. But this is another example of where it is really important to know what is normal for your dog and keep a journal or log of his physical exam findings. If you find your dog’s resting vitals are higher -and consistently so- it might be worth taking him in to get checked out. Once again, arthritis, dental disease, and other different internal issues can cause pain and therefore cause an increase in their vital signs.


Our dogs are so precious. And it needs to be known that they won't always complain about the pain they are in. I frequently talk about how they are the superior species- and I feel like I am consistently proving my theory as true.

On this blog we talk a lot about being proactive and less passive. This includes taking constant inventory on our dog’s behaviors and habits. It also drives home the importance of knowing what is normal for your dog and performing regular exams- and logging and dating your own exam findings.

We say our dogs can’t tell us what hurts or when it does but, in all actuality, they will tell us. We just need to be better listeners.

So, turn off your distractions- your cell phone – your Netflix- your social media- and spend some quality time listening to what your dog has to say. Then you can be a better advocate for his or her health!

Until next time, get out and explore more with your dog. Cheers!

Libbie Fort, DVM


P.S. Start performing your own canine physical exams TODAY!!! Get started by referring to our physical exam cheat sheet. Click here to snag it!



Val you are always welcome!! I am glad you found it helpful! Thanks for your kind words and for reading!!


Hey Gail!!
You are a fantastic pet parent I am not sure you need much help. Haha! Love hearing from you and I hope all is well. Thank you for your kind words and for reading!

Gail Rocke

A great article on self awareness of your pet’s physical behavior and the signs to look for.
Thank you for helping us to be better pet parents!

Val Zuercher

Very informative and helpful article. Thanks for sharing your knowledge on this matter.

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