Understanding How Dogs Feel Pain

Updated on July 22, 2019
alexadry profile image

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, former veterinary assistant, and author of the online dog training course "Brain Training for Dogs."

How dogs feel pain
How dogs feel pain | Source

The Perception of Pain in Dogs

Telling when a dog feels pain seems fairly easy: most likely, you know a dog is in pain when he suddenly yelps because as a human, you are used to communicating pain vocally. "Ouch! Uhhh, Ahhhhh..Ai... That really hurts!" Each language has its own way of communicating pain.

Yet, dogs aren't always yelping when in pain; actually many times they demonstrate pain in many more subtle ways that often aren't caught by their owners. It therefore comes as a surprise when the vet finds an unsuspected orthopedic problem and the owner wasn't aware of it. "But my dog never showed any pain, only an occasional limp" is something you often hear, when in fact, a limp is indeed a sign of pain, since putting weight on the leg is painful! But how do dogs perceive pain, and what are those subtle signs of pain that often go unrecognized?

Pain is an unpleasant feeling that can hurt like hell, but it is so very helpful. It's a warning sent to humans and animals that signals bodily dangers. Without pain, in normal situations we would injure ourselves further, putting ourselves into peril. It is thanks to pain that we avoid getting too close to fire which risks getting us burnt, and it is thanks to pain that we avoid exposing our hands to cold temperatures which risks giving us frostbite.

It is also thanks to stomach pain that we realize we are hungry! That pain and grumble is your tummy's way of saying: Hey, your stomach is talking here, fill me up!"

So we may dread pain, but we must also be thankful for it. Just think about the terrible damage people suffering from "pain asymbolia" (people who lack the ability to feel pain) sustain. These people burn themselves, crack their bones and cause their feet to ulcerate because they fail to determine with how much pressure they should walk.

Pain therefore is imperative to protect ourselves. More and more vets are no longer heavily prescribing pain killers to dogs as these mask the perception of pain causing a dog to overuse a leg that instead should be resting.

While recovery in some cases may be faster for dogs who feel mild, temporary pain due to a sprain and shift their weight accordingly than those on heavy pain killers who continue bouncing around as if nothing ever happened to them, it's important to recognize though that excessive pain, or pain that is experienced over a long period of time, can hinder recovery as pain triggers a dog stress response with the release of stress hormones, which, according to Stanley Coren, over time, can leave a dog exhausted and distressed.

Dogs just as humans deserve pain relief, especially after surgical procedures! The right balance can be found by providing pain relief and restricting activity as necessary.

How is pain transmitted? Pain originates in special receptors distributed throughout the dog's body. Those near the skin, inform the dog he has sustained tissue damage such as when bitten by a bug, when his foot stepped on a thorn or when he has been given an injection by the vet. The pain through active pathways informs what part of the body has sustained injury. The injured dog will therefore immediately start licking the affected area or stop applying weight if it's a leg.

As mentioned though, pain at times is not that obvious. In the next paragraphs we will discuss subtle signs of pain and stress-induced analgesia.

Is your dog's pain response voluntary or involuntary?

Interestingly, from the way your dog responds to pain, you can tell if the pain response is voluntary or involuntary. If your dog dislikes nail trims because in the past you have trimmed the nails too short, he may voluntarily withdraw his paw when you grab it to trim his nails because of past negative experiences. In this case, the withdrawal of the paw is based on experience explain veterinarians Kim Campbell Thornton & Debra Eldredge. The pain response though may be involuntary when your accidentally cut the quick and your dog reflexively withdraws the paw.

What signs of stress do you recognize in this dog wearing a shock collar?

Lips pulled back, ears flattened, tense body
Lips pulled back, ears flattened, tense body | Source

Evident and Subtle Signs of Pain in Dogs

How can you tell a dog is in pain? Most likely, as discussed before, you rely on vocalizations. As a dog owner, you're likely familiar with that acute yelp your dog emits when you accidentally step on his toe. This form of pain is acute, meaning that it lasts very briefly, contrary to the chronic, long-lasting pain observed in dogs with arthritis. But dogs manifest pain also in more subtle ways. Ask a person if he is in pain, and you'll not only get an answer, but even a number on the pain scale. With dogs all the guesswork is left to us. When my female Rottweiler tore her cruciate ligament her main manifestations of pain were occasional limping, panting and lip licking especially at night. When my male had a bout of diarrhea, shivering took place minutes before running out to defecate. Following are some evident and more subtle signs of pain in dogs.

30 and More Ways Dogs Show Pain

  • Yelping
  • Howling
  • Whining
  • Groaning
  • Whimpering
  • Growling
  • Limping
  • Licking an area over and over
  • Shivering
  • Lip smacking
  • Loss of appetite
  • Lethargy
  • Overly clingy behaviors
  • Restlessness
  • Pacing
  • Reluctance to move
  • Reluctance to being picked up
  • Enlarged pupils
  • Glazed stare
  • Squinting
  • Increased breathing rate
  • Panting
  • Increased or decreased sleeping
  • Elimination problems
  • Straining to eliminate
  • Hunched position
  • Prayer position
  • Hiding
  • Excessive scratching
  • Licking
  • Flattened ears
  • Lips pulled back
  • Lowered tail
  • and more!

You may often hear shock collar advocates claim that the shock doesn't hurt the dog. To a novice eye this may seem true at times as the dog may not yelp or whimper as we are used to seeing when our dog feels pain. To an experienced eye though dogs shocked with shock collars send pain and stress signals left and right!

About Stress-Induced Analgesia and Common Misconceptions

There is some troubling information that sometimes lingers around forums or misinformed people. One of the most troubling is the belief that dogs, or certain breeds of dogs, do not feel pain like humans do. This belief may stem from the innate tendency for animals to hide pain from view.

From an evolutionary standpoint, manifesting pain may potentially cause an animal to appear weak and vulnerable which is potentially dangerous in the wild where predators are just waiting for a weakened animal to attack it and feast. It therefore may be instinctive to hide pain and not manifest it as we would expect, but it's terribly wrong to assume that dogs don't feel pain.

According to the Animal Farm Foundation: " Research has shown that animals and humans have similar neural pathways for the development, conduction and modulation of pain, making it pretty likely that our pets experience pain in much same the way we do.

For instance, you may have heard that certain breeds of dogs do not feel pain and some people use this as a justification for using harsh training methods and tools. You sometimes hear from pit bull breeders that this breed may have a high tolerance for pain, and as such, it should accept rough handling from kids without a blink of an eye. It is terribly wrong and unjust for parents to allow their children to inappropriately handle “pit bull” dogs (or any other type of dog for the matter) in a rough manner just because of this belief.

Child and dog safety advocates know for a fact that rough handling by children can set dogs for failure and this may lead to bites no matter the breed. Truth is, all dogs share the same nervous system and are genetically wired to feel pain just as any other living specimen on earth!

According to the Animal Farm Foundation, pit bulls are not biologically different from other dogs, and as such, they deserve to be handled with respect, and there's nothing wrong with a pit bull that prefers gentle play over overly rough play.

The higher pain threshold myth in pit bulls and some other of the larger terriers may have stemmed by their reputation for being selectively bred for "gameness" which is often depicted as the eagerness to persevere despite the threat of substantive injury.

This though doesn't mean the dog doesn't feel pain, it just means that in certain circumstances, some dogs may not manifest pain as we would expect, just as a brave soldier perseveres in battle despite pain and cold because he has an important mission to accomplish or an athlete ignores pain when running a marathon as he gets an adrenaline rush by looking at the now near finish line.

Yet, there are no rules set in stone as each dog is an individual. How a dog responds to pain cannot be predicted by breed, sex or physical appearance. You'll have the Chihuahua that doesn't flinch after a shot and the big Great Dane that yelps in horror.

This brings us to the discussion of stress-induced analgesia, that is, the ability to suppress pain in face of stressful situations. Salposky in his book "Why Zebras Do not Get Ulcers, discusses how a rat that has been stressed takes longer to notice the heat emitted by walking on a hot plate. The same phenomenon occurs to the zebra, which despite being injured, must run away from the lion.

In dogs, stress, fear or over arousal may trigger an adrenaline rush that may lead to a dog not feeling the pain associated with the use of shock or prong collar corrections. This may lead the owners to believe they own a "tough cookie" and inspires them to increase the level of pain in order to get a response in an increasing spiral of harm potentially nearing abuse.

The ideal and most ethical approach in these cases, would be going to the source of the problem through force-free behavior modification techniques such as desensitization and counterconditioning. But what's happening from a neuro-chemical standpoint? The answer comes from Roger Guillemin who discovered that stress triggers the release of beta-endorphins from the pituitary gland. While the pain may be temporarily suppressed though it soon returns once the stressful event wanes.

As seen, dogs can manifest subtle signs when it comes to pain, even though they're not as secretive as cats. It's our job as owners picking up these subtle signs so we can intervene in a timely manner. After all, we know our dogs best and should be able to quickly recognize any changes.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2014 Adrienne Farricelli


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    • alexadry profile imageAUTHOR

      Adrienne Farricelli 

      5 years ago

      Sounds like there's some underlying issue that needs checked out. Best wishes fora speedy recovery!

    • ladyguitarpicker profile image

      stella vadakin 

      5 years ago from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619

      Very interesting. I took Trixie my beagle to the vet because she yelps at various times. If I go to pick her up she will scream they gave her pain meds worked great till we ran out. Now I'll take her somewhere to find out what's wrong.

    • alexadry profile imageAUTHOR

      Adrienne Farricelli 

      5 years ago

      They are similar to us in many ways. I am always amazed by how much we can learn from them.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      5 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Dogs are just understanding pets and your helpful tips can help all dog lovers.


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