Here’s a little story loosely based on many visits over the course of my career: a client comes in with their dog for a routine checkup. I note a pain response when I examine their hips and ask the client “Has she been in pain?” and the client answers “Well, lately, my dog is limping but no pain is there. It’s just a limp, not pain.”
Oops. That’s a total misunderstanding of what limping means.
I don’t understand how this misunderstanding came about, but enough people have it that I need to be really clear:
There are almost no medical reasons for a patient to limp without being in pain. OK, maybe a couple, but these are incredibly rare.
Do you limp if you are not in pain? Of course not. Neither do dogs.
Dogs limp because it hurts them to bear weight on the affected leg.
When I conduct an orthopedic exam in limping dogs, I will get a pain response somewhere (foot, hock, shin, knee, thigh, hip, pelvis or back…or foot, wrist, forearm, elbow, bicep area, shoulder, or neck/back). These dogs hurt!
So what’s the problem here? Why do guardians believe that if a dog is limping, there is no pain?
It could be that there is the idea that there is no vocalization (whining, yelping, etc.). In other words, dogs who hurt make some noise or another.
That’s not true. Dogs in pain are not necessarily vocal.
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When a dog gets a sudden onset of acute, sharp pain, he or she may yip or yelp. This is most common with sharp, sudden pangs of pain.
But chronic pain, extended over time? It’s very unlikely that dogs will make noises to indicate their pain.
Other signs often will tell you when a dog is in chronic pain. For example one sign of pain is the dog’s overall activity, and sometimes a decrease in activity (being “more sluggish”, or “tired”). One way we know that activity level is a good indicator pain status is because giving a pain reliever increases activity.
Here’s a good article with more pain symptoms described.
When I am faced with a limping dog in my hospital, I always advise taking the steps to figure out the cause of the pain. Then I proceed from there, depending upon what I find.
Many times I will prescribe Apocaps (which can be used as a mild anti-inflammatory), or a reduced dose of NSAIDs. If things are more severe, anti-anxiety meds and other steps like acupuncture or considering palliative radiation and pamidronate.
Brown DC, Boston RC, Farrar JT. Use of an activity monitor to detect response to treatment in dogs with osteoarthritis. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2010 Jul 1;237(1):66-70. doi: 10.2460/javma.237.1.66
Dr. Demian Dressler is internationally recognized as “the dog cancer vet” because of his innovations in the field of dog cancer management, and the popularity of his blog here at Dog Cancer Blog. The owner of South Shore Veterinary Care, a full-service veterinary hospital in Maui, Hawaii, Dr. Dressler studied Animal Physiology and received a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of California at Davis before earning his Doctorate in Veterinary Medicine from Cornell University. After practicing at Killewald Animal Hospital in Amherst, New York, he returned to his home state, Hawaii, to practice at the East Honolulu Pet Hospital before heading home to Maui to open his own hospital. Dr. Dressler consults both dog lovers and veterinary professionals, and is sought after as a speaker on topics ranging from the links between lifestyle choices and disease, nutrition and cancer, and animal ethics. His television appearances include “Ask the Vet” segments on local news programs. He is the author of The Dog Cancer Survival Guide: Full Spectrum Treatments to Optimize Your Dog’s Life Quality and Longevity. He is a member of the American Veterinary Medical Association, the Hawaii Veterinary Medical Association, the American Association of Avian Veterinarians, the National Animal Supplement Council and CORE (Comparative Orthopedic Research Evaluation). He is also an advisory board member for Pacific Primate Sanctuary.