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  • Writer's pictureComplete Canine

How Can I Tell If My Dog Is In Pain?

When our dog is in pain, how do we know? Usually it is because we have noticed a change in their behaviour.

Old Border Collie standing on track
It's not always obvious when our dog is in pain, but usually the signs are there if you know what to look for

Pain, and fear of pain, place physical and emotional stress on our dog which puts them physiologically and psychologically out of balance. Acute pain (sudden onset, short-term) is adaptive - it makes our dog aware that they are ill / injured so that they slow down / stop, helping to protect their body from further damage and enabling their body tissues to heal. Chronic pain (on-going, long-term) is maladaptive - the prolonged stress it places on our dog’s body maintains high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which suppresses the immune system, reduces the ability of body tissues to heal and maintains the pain.

‘Behaviour’ can be defined as ‘the externally observable activity of a living creature in response to changing internal and external conditions’. ‘Activity’ includes the way our dog postures and moves, their patterns of eating, sleeping and toileting, and the vocalisations they use. Behaviour is adaptive, and reflects an animal’s attempts to cope with changing conditions to reduce stress and maintain physiological and emotional balance. So, like us, when our dog is in pain (or fear of it), they will try to protect themselves by attempting to avoid the conditions that trigger or exacerbate the pain / fear, and by engaging in activities that help to relieve their pain / fear.

Terrier with sad face laying on rug
Your dog may lie down more often but be too uncomfortable to sleep

Behaviour changes that may indicate that your dog is in pain or in fear of pain

Daily activities

  • Increased or decreased sleeping (your dog may sit or lay down but be too uncomfortable with pain to sleep, wavering can indicate sleep deprivation)

  • Reduced appetite and / or change in the method your dog uses to eat

  • Hesitant or unwilling to jump in / out of car, go up / down steps or walk on slippery surfaces (e.g. laminate flooring)

  • Loss of enthusiasm for walks and / or play

  • Withdrawing from social interaction with other dogs and / or people (your dog may still seek quiet interaction with you e.g. sitting close by but avoiding physical contact)

  • Increased irritability and / or aggression

  • Increase in appeasement behaviours (non-aggressive communications used to avoid potential threat e.g. rolling over and laying still, licking at mouths)

  • Increase in displacement behaviours (normal activities performed out of context e.g. excessive self-licking, constantly chewing inedible objects, excessive ‘hyper’ play)

  • Development of abnormal behaviours (e.g. ‘mounting’ cushions)

  • ‘Trancing’ (e.g. standing / sitting / lying for extended periods with head pushed into or under an object such as a house plant)

  • Development of phobias (e.g. noise sensitivity)

  • Unresponsive (e.g. to sound or touch) even though conscious and aware

  • Seeking sources of heat or cold (e.g. radiators, stone flooring) when ambient room temperature is neither hot nor cold

Old terrier outdoors panting
Panting when not hot can be a sign of pain

Body language / vocalisations

  • Panting (when not hot)

  • Blinking more frequently than usual

  • Drawing ears back

  • Hiding parts of the body / moving away from touch

  • Frequent, rapid tail wagging

  • Sudden crying out/squealing

Terrier bow-stretching on rug
A dog who bow-stretches frequently / repeatedly in succession may be attempting to relieve pain

Way of moving / posture

  • Moving more slowly (as if aged overnight)

  • Lameness (e.g. limping, not weight-bearing)

  • Holding body stiffly and moving in a considered way

  • Standing with four feet close together and abdomen hunched

  • Frequently displaying praying / bowing position (front end down, bottom up)

  • Regularly rolling / laying on their back

  • Tilted head position

Every behaviour is context-specific, and there may be other reasons for your dog displaying some of the behaviours outlined above, however it is important to rule-out pain as a causal factor given the detrimental impact pain will have on your dog’s well-being.

Remember, pain can be acute or chronic, a behaviour may have been going on for a long-time but this does not make it normal or less likely to be indicating that your dog is in pain and / or distress. Dogs are often very good at hiding pain, by the time we’ve noticed a change in their behaviour our dog may be in a lot of discomfort. Also, dogs will often continue to go about their favourite activities like chasing and retrieving balls even when they are in pain, since their motivation to play is so high and they are not aware of the increasing damage they are doing to themselves.

If you become aware of any short-term or long-term behaviour change which may indicate that your dog is in pain, take them to see their vet.

Massage therapy for the treatment of pain

Canine massage therapist treating a black Labrador
Massage is a hands-on therapy involving the manual manipulation of the soft tissues of your dog’s body

It is the soft tissues (e.g. muscles, fascia, tendons, ligaments, skin) of your dog’s body that hold his bones and organs in place and enable him to move. Injury and illness can cause pain in these soft tissues, both through primary damage (e.g. tear to the muscle - strain - sustained during play) and through secondary damage (e.g. soft tissues that shorten and thicken to help stabilise an arthritic joint become tight, congested and more vulnerable to further injury).

Massage is a natural, drug-free, hands-on therapy which involves the manual manipulation of the soft tissues of your dog’s body.

With approval from your dog’s vet, clinical massage provided by a professionally-trained therapist, can be used incredibly effectively to relieve, manage and prevent pain (and fear of pain) caused by injury and / or disease by:

  • Warming, lengthening and relaxing stiff, tired and hypertonic muscles and increasing range of motion in the joints

  • Releasing soft tissue restrictions such as trigger points (muscle knots) and scar tissue

  • Promoting better circulation of blood, nutrients and oxygen and removal of waste products to enhance overall good tissue health

  • Enhancing lymph circulation, reducing inflammatory swelling and strengthening the immune system

  • Decreasing tissue pressure on nerves, interrupting nervous system pain receptors and soothing nerve endings

  • Lowering blood pressure and heart rate and stimulating the release of natural endorphins to reduce anxiety and stress levels and increase your dog’s ability to relax and sleep

  • Enhancing and supporting the body’s natural healing processes following injury, surgery and disease

  • Reducing the risk of injury and optimising sports performance by preparing your dog physically and psychologically for work and competition and supporting their body’s natural healing processes following strenuous activity

Golden Retriever trotting on grass
Enjoying walks once more is an indicator that pain has been reduced or eliminated

Behaviour changes that indicate that your dog is in less or no pain / fear of pain

In the same way that your dog’s behaviour can tell you when he is in pain, equally his behaviour can tell you when his pain has been reduced or eliminated.

Joyfully, for pain-inflicted dogs who have received 1 to 3 sessions of clinical massage from a professionally-trained therapist, countless owners report afterwards that they have noticed clear, positive changes in their dog’s behaviour, for example that their dog:

  • Is no longer limping

  • Has a better posture

  • Is playing and enjoying walks once more

  • Is more relaxed and sociable

  • Has started walking up / down the stairs, jumping in / out of the car again

  • Is now able to sleep through the night

  • Is like a young dog again

So, be vigilant in observing your dog’s behaviour, he may be trying to tell you he’s in pain, and if he is, it may be that clinical massage therapy could be just what your dog is waiting for to help him live a happier, healthier life.

Members of the Canine Massage Guild train for 2 years on the Clinical Canine Massage Practitioner Programme externally accredited by LANTRA* via the Canine Massage Therapy Centre (* formerly Therapeutic Canine Massage Diploma accredited by Ascentis), and during each year in practice commit to undertaking a minimum of 25 hours Continuing Professional Development as part of the Canine Massage Guild’s strong code of ethics and conduct.

The Canine Massage Guild is currently working in conjunction with Sparsholt College & University Centre, along with the University of Winchester, who are conducting the first in-depth trials into the efficacy of canine massage therapy, and specifically the Lenton Method which is taught only by Canine Massage Therapy Centre on it's Practitioner Programme.

Find your local Canine Massage Guild therapist by visiting

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“Restore, maintain, enhance” with Complete Canine Massage Therapy.


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