Pain Management for Dogs: How to Recognize and Treat Pain

One of the many difficulties in our inability to communicate verbally with our dogs is sensing how they feel physically (and mentally). Sensing your dog’s pain and achieving pain management can only occur based on observing any changes in your dog’s behavior. The American Animal Hospital Association reported that behavioral changes are the “principal indicator of pain and its course of improvement or progression, and the basis for recently validated pain scores.”

In this article, we’ll walk through the different types of pain dogs may experience, how to tell if your dog is experiencing any of those types of pain, and pain management/easing the pain. Dogs’ nervous systems are very similar to humans, so a good rule of thumb is if it would hurt us, it will likely hurt them.

Categorizing Types of Pain

Primarily, pain can be categorized as either acute or chronic; acute is short-term pain typically following an injury, illness, or surgery, and chronic is long-term pain usually associated with something like arthritis. Both types of pain can be difficult for your pup to handle, despite his stoic demeanor, and both require different approaches to treatment and management.

Acute pain is the kind of pain you would notice if your dog’s behavior suddenly changes. In humans, it’s often described as sharp, throbbing, aching, or burning and is common following any injury or sickness. It’s the same for dogs. This is also the kind of pain that goes away when the affected area heals, depending on how long that takes (anywhere from a couple days to a couple months). But once this pain lasts longer than three months, it can be classified as chronic pain. 

Chronic pain is persistent. The severity of chronic pain differs depending on the individual, and its purpose is more difficult to discover compared to the urgency typically associated with acute pain. Chronic pain is usually linked to a larger issue for your pup, like arthritis, rheumatic disorders, and cancer. It can occur at any age, but is most often a problem for older dogs.

Signs of Pain in Dogs

Paying attention to your dog’s behaviors and responses to stimuli is the only way to detect the pain he may be experiencing. 

Some signs include:

  • Anxiety or agitation
  • Wincing or showing sensitivity
  • Vocalization
  • Trembling
  • Becoming quiet or withdrawn
  • Limping
  • Changes in personality
  • Increased panting and/or heart rate

Some of the more subtle signs include: reduced appetite, depression, difficulty moving. There are many factors that cause the signs to vary, including age and environment, so one dog may be exhibiting much more obvious signs of pain than another dog when the feeling of pain is equal.

If you notice any of the obvious signs of pain that may indicate your dog is in immediate need of help (i.e. trouble breathing, inability to stand up or walk, etc.), then we recommend contacting an emergency veterinarian or taking your dog to the nearest pet clinic as soon as possible.

Pain Management & Treatment

Pain management for dogs suffering from either acute or chronic pain varies depending on the situation, and the best way to figure out what plan of treatment is best for your pup is to contact your vet. Acute pain will go away once your pup has healed, but chronic pain lasts longer and can be managed so that your dog is less uncomfortable through use of medication.

Using NSAIDs

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs—NSAIDs—work by reducing pain and inflammation. They’re often given to dogs experiencing osteoarthritis or to control postoperative pain. There are some side effects that come with taking NSAIDs that vets are best equipped to inform you of; but they can include vomiting, diarrhea, decreased appetite, and decreased activity level. If you notice any of these side effects, you should stop giving the drug to your dog and contact your veterinarian.

Can I Give My Dog Human Pain Relievers?

You should never give your dog pain medication that is made for people. While dogs may experience pain in a similar way, their nervous and digestive systems are still different from ours, so how they process medication is also different. Giving your dog drugs made for humans could cause serious problems and should always be avoided.

In more severe cases, your veterinarian may prescribe opioids for your dog, likely if he just underwent a serious surgery, in more advanced cases of cancer, or to help with severe arthritis. 

If you want to find out more about the best approach to managing pain, no matter the kind, we recommend contacting your veterinarian.

Zoë Butler
Author: Zoë Butler

Content Writer for

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