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How to Recognize Pain in Aging Dogs

As dogs age, we generally see changes in their behavior. The playful ball-chasing and constant running around that we associate with puppies gives way to adult dogs napping in the sun and lounging during evening TV time. With senior dogs we accept even more slowing down. It is important to remember, however, that old age is not a disease. We need to differentiate between normal behavior changes of aging dogs and abnormal behaviors that can be important signals of pain.

What kind of behavior changes might I see in my dog that could be a sign that he’s in pain? Unfortunately, detecting pain in our canine companions is not always straightforward or black and white. Some visibly obvious behaviors are important signs that a dog may be in pain. These include:

  • avoiding slippery floor surfaces

  • difficulty getting up or slow to stand from a down position

  • difficulty or easing into a sitting or lying position

  • limping/lameness

  • lying down while eating or drinking

  • reluctance or inability to jump up onto furniture, a bed, or into a car

  • reluctance to go up or down stairs

  • reluctance to raise his head to take a treat

  • reluctance to sit when asked

  • reluctance to turn his head to one side or the other

  • sitting on one hip or the other with the rear legs off to one side 'lazy sit'

  • standing to one side/weight shifting away from a painful limb

  • standing or walking with his head held down or back arched up

  • moving/walking while defecating or urinating

  • urinary or fecal accidents

  • night restlessness if he cannot get comfortable

Any of these behaviors should prompt a visit to the veterinarian so a source of the pain can be identified, and treatment can begin. What are some other changes in my dog's behavior or attitude that could be caused by pain?

  • Fatigue. Decreased stamina on walks or while playing is often misinterpreted as a sign of old age. There may be several explanations for diminished stamina, including metabolic diseases such as hypothyroidism or heart disease. Your veterinarian will need to examine your dog to determine the cause. However, pain - particularly from chronic changes caused by conditions such as osteoarthritis (OA) - must be considered in this scenario. Often, once a dog’s pain is treated, the owners notice a return to activities previously abandoned and generally higher energy levels. In other words, owners do not realize that their pet was in pain until the pain is taken away.

  • Reluctance to be groomed. An often-overlooked sign of pain in dogs is a reluctance to be brushed, combed, or otherwise groomed. Pain of any kind, but particularly the chronic pain associated with OA, can become generalized so that the dog feels discomfort even in areas of the body far from the arthritic joints. When this happens, dogs become more sensitive in all areas of their body, and even being combed or brushed can feel painful. These dogs often develop dandruff (their skin becomes flaky), and those that have medium-length or long hair commonly develop mats in their haircoat and can have urine or fecal stains on their hind end. Like cats, dogs groom themselves to stay clean, but if they are in pain they will stop.

  • Reluctance to be picked up. Little dogs, especially dogs that are long and low to the ground, may present their pain by resisting efforts to pick them up. The upward pressure of our hands around their bodies can set off a pain flare if they are experiencing back pain. If your small dog begins to object to being picked up, it is time to schedule an appointment to look for pain.

  • Reluctance to be touched in certain areas. A dog with no pain issues should cheerfully accept handling of all body parts. You should be able to touch all along the back, including the sides and top of the back; the bottom-most area of the torso (the area where the ribcage ends, and the lower back begins); and the area of the ’waist’ between the ribs and pelvis. You should also be able to touch the area around the tail base without your dog being bothered. In addition to the body, you should be able to handle all four limbs, including the toes, the feet, and the joints of the front and rear legs, without your dog reacting. If you want to test your dog's comfort level by handling the feet and legs, you will have the best success if your dog is reclining rather than standing.

What if I'm not sure my dog has pain?

When in doubt, have it checked out. Always give your dog the benefit of the doubt if you suspect pain. Dogs are by nature stoic beings that do not complain about discomfort unless pain is severe and maybe not even then. It is important as their caregivers to pay attention so any changes in behavior are observed and brought to your veterinarian’s attention. Your veterinary healthcare team is ready to help identify pain and discomfort when it is present, and to treat it so your dog can return to a comfortable, pain-free life.

Contributors: Krista Williams, BSc, DVM; Robin Downing, DVM, CVPP, CCRP, DAAPM

Credit to: VCA Animal Hospital

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