Featuring Demian Dressler, DVM and Susan Ettinger, DVM, Dip. ACVIM (Oncology), authors of The Dog Cancer Survival Guide

How to Know If Your Dog Is In Pain

Updated: November 26th, 2018

Signs of Pain in Dogs with Cancer

How do we know if our dog is in pain?

One of the most surprising, and frankly, upsetting, things that we have learned from Dr. Dressler, author of The Dog Cancer Survival Guide, is how often over the years we’ve missed signs that our dogs were in pain. And now that we know what the signs are, we’re very different caregivers.

There are many signs that a dog is in pain, and we’ll tell you about them in a minute. But first, it’s important to understand a fact of dog psychology. If you don’t know this, you might always miss signs of your dog in pain!

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Dogs are Not Like Humans When It Comes to Pain

Dogs are pack animals, and back when they were in the wild, they never, ever wanted to be separated from their pack. Being part of the pack meant everything: life, food, companionship, protection. And if dogs couldn’t keep up with the pack? They slowed the pack down, made it more vulnerable, made it more difficult for everyone to survive.

Therefore, weak, old, and sick dogs (or wolves, coyotes, etc.) are left behind to face their fate by the pack. And that usually means death for a lone dog.

Think about your dog and how much he hates to be left alone. Being left behind by the pack means he is not part of it anymore. It’s an awful fate for a pack animal.

Today’s dogs still have that Wild Instinct inside, an instinct that forces them to act as if they are strong and healthy, no matter what. Most dogs will do everything they can to hide pain or illness from their pack, even if we humans are their pack.

We might know we would never leave them behind, but dogs don’t.

This is why cancer is so often found late, and why dogs so often get sick “overnight.” They may feel ill for a long while, but if they are able to hide their symptoms, or, as medicine calls it, compensate for their symptoms, they do so. When they can no longer hide their symptoms, they decompensate quickly.  They seem almost to fall apart.

We bet you know some humans like this, too. Maybe you have an uncle who has an old and clearly painful injury who insists it doesn’t bother him. Or a mother with migraine headaches who smiles through dinner, eyes red and glazed, while her head pounds incessantly – but doesn’t go to bed until everyone’s left and the dishes are done.

That’s what our dogs are like. They don’t want us to know when they are in pain, and they will do everything they can to hide it.

They’re afraid if we find out that they are in pain, we will think they are weak and we will leave them behind.

For more helpful information and tools, get a copy of the Dog Cancer Survival Guide

Cancer Causes Pain – Unless It Doesn’t

Any tumor that presses on other structures probably causes pain. And some cancers just plain hurt: osteosarcoma, nasal tumors, brain tumors are all likely to cause pain due to their locations.

But other tumors – breast tumors, for example, don’t seem to cause pain in dogs. Tumors that are on the outside of the body often don’t seem to bother the dog.

Of course, dogs can’t tell us whether they feel pain or not. At least not in words. So how do you know if your dog is in pain?

How Dogs Signal Pain

Dogs don’t use language to communicate, and most don’t even use their voices much in general. So, unlike in humans, listening for sounds might not be your best strategy to know if your dogs in pain. Here are the other signs that might signal your dog is in pain:

  • Limping ALWAYS means your dog is in pain
  • Doesn’t want to be touched
  • Resistance to using a certain area of the body.
  • Bunny-hopping (it looks cute, but it’s not normal)
  • Vocalizing (whimpering, whining, yelping) for “no reason,” particularly when lying still or standing still
  • Unusual Panting
  • Unusual Trembling
  • Resistance to climbing stairs or getting up on furniture
  • Guarding: hunching over as in a stomach ache
  • Straining to urinate or defecate
  • Listless or apathetic behavior
  • Lack of appetite
  • Lack of engagement (isolating, withdrawn, refusing to play or walk)
  • Aggression

If you see any of these signs, it could mean your dog is experiencing some measure of pain, and you should get it figured out so you can address it.

As you know from your own life, feeling pain and not finding relief is disheartening and can lower the mood. And a depressed dog just can’t fight cancer as well as a happy one. A pain-free dog is better equipped in all ways to deal with cancer’s ordeals.

Pain Management is Possible

There’s an entire chapter on pain management in The Dog Cancer Survival Guide. Chapter 17 starts on page 229 and in it you will find recommendations for both medical and nonmedical pain management strategies. You’ll also find out that there are different types of pain, and what their causes are. And you’ll find out why it’s better to use several different forms of pain management together, rather than just one.

There’s also an Ask Dr. Dressler Webinar dedicated to pain in pain management, which is part of the Dog Cancer Kit.

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Even though dogs are part of our families, and we feel like we know them really well, learning more about their psychology and understanding how cancer works in their bodies can be very enlightening. And it makes us better dog owners and caretakers, especially when it comes to pain.

Best Wishes & Doggy Kisses from Our Homes to Yours,

Dog Cancer Vet Team

(The Team of Dog Lovers Who Understand What It Means to Have a Dog with Cancer)

Discover the Full Spectrum Approach to Dog Cancer

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