Dog pain tolerance: Is my dog in pain?

No one wants their dog to be in pain and a dog’s pain tolerance is a very subjective experience. There is no hard and fast rule when a dog is in pain because every individual dog, just like humans, experiences pain differently. What is clear, however, is that dogs often do not vocalise their discomfort and pain and bravely carry out their usual activities. This means that some dogs unfortunately suffer in silence because their human parents do not read the signs correctly. It makes it incredibly hard for us doggy parents to know whether our beloved pooch is in pain or not. Let me help you develop a better grasp on the topic and give you some tools to make sure you clearly understand what your dog is telling you.

In order to be able to assess whether your dog is in pain it is important that you understand the difference between the two main types of pain: acute and chronic pain.

Acute vs chronic pain

Acute pain is often labeled as ‘good’ pain whilst chronic pain is considered ‘bad’ pain. Acute pain is ‘good’ because it is a normal response to an injury and prevents further harm as it encourages resting and healing. It is protective and usually short-lived. Chronic pain on the other hand is long-term and extends beyond the time expected for healing. It usually last longer than 3 months and some dogs live with chronic pain most of their life. Chronic pain does not have a purpose and therefore can be considered ‘bad’ pain.

In fact, chronic pain can change the central nervous system (the brain) and make it more sensitive to pain. Chronic pain repeatedly stimulates the nerve fibres that are responsible for detecting, receiving and sending pain signals. This continuous stimulation (or constant messaging to/flooding of the brain) leads to your dog’s brain becoming ‘overwhelmed’ which causes changes in the emotional and cognitive areas of your brain. It can lead to the involvement of other processing areas such as signals for touch, pressure, temperature and vibration among others, which are then being misinterpreted by the brain as pain. In other words, there is a risk that your dog begins misinterpreting touch, pressure, or a temperature change for pain. If pain is left unmanaged for too long, there is a chance that patients may stop responding to common pain relieving medication.

“My dog is happy so it can’t be that bad”

This is were it gets tricky when we talk about the pain tolerance in a dog. I hear this, or a similar version of this statement, very often (i.e. “s/he still enjoys fetching the ball so it can’t be that bad” or “s/he still jumps onto the couch so it can’t be that bad”). In fact, you couldn’t be further from the truth. Simply because your dog is still performing certain activities doesn’t mean they are not in pain. You might ask: ‘Why would they continue doing these activities if they hurt?’ and this is a very valid question to ask. Let me explain.

The relationship between high value activities and pain in your dog

We asked our dogs to perform certain activities their whole life like jumping in and out of the car, jumping on/off the couch or our bed, and fetching the ball in the park. These activities are not only habits but they are also high value activities. They are high value activities because for many dogs these activities are the highlights of their day. I am mainly talking about dogs who are confined to a house and backyard with limited room to roam and who are highly dependent on their owners to be physically and mentally stimulated (in comparison to farm dogs).

Jumping into the car very likely means a drive to the park or beach which is high on the entertainment list. Similarly, chasing the ball is clearly very exciting and who would turn down a bit of fun? Don’t we all love the release of dopamine and endorphin (the happy and feel-good hormones) in our bodies? And jumping onto the couch or bed means your dog can be close to their most favourite hooman. Clearly, these activities take priority and are often performed despite experiencing pain because the pleasure outweighs the pain. If your dog decides it hurts too much to perform these activities and therefore opts out of, for example, jumping into the car or onto your bed, they have most likely been in pain for a while and their pain has reached a level which they cannot ignored anymore.

Changes in my dog’s pain tolerance: Endorphins – the body’s natural pain reliever

Another very important point to consider when determining the pain tolerance of your dog is that when they engage in high value, reward-producing activities, your dog’s body releases endorphins which are the body’s natural pain reliever. In other words, your dog feels less pain when engaging in these activities which correlates with the observation of many owners that their dog is ‘happy’ to perform certain activities and ‘does not seem to be in pain’. These are great news and we should engage our dogs in mentally stimulating exercises for exactly this reason (among a few others). The crucial point, however, is what kind of mentally stimulating exercises we choose to do with our dogs. Whilst fetching the ball might be super fun for our dogs and they will probably only feel mild pain whilst engaged in the activity (due to endorphin release), their joints will not appreciate the hard breaking, twisting and turning in the long run. If your dog is diagnosed with arthritis, the worst case scenario is an arthritis flare up a few hours later or the next day, and your dog will be stiff and potentially even lame. But even if it doesn’t come to the point of an acute flare up, there is a high likelihood that your dog will feel the aftermath of their ‘fun play’ and we are actually doing them a disservice. In addition, we accelerate the degenerative process of their joint disease.

There is a multitude of enrichment activities that have the same effect – endorphin release – but do impact your dog’s joints. Senior Dog Enrichment discusses the science behind it a bit more and suggests 4 activities you can start integrating in your dog’s life.

Most research studies on endorphin release in humans is associated with physical exercise, however, there are studies particularly on the human-canine interaction which show that an increase in endorphin levels has been observed also during enjoyable interactions such as petting, looking at each other and talking to a dog. Interestingly, but not important for our argument here, is that endorphin levels increase in both dogs and humans.

Whilst endorphin release is a wonderful natural mechanism it unfortunately masks the reality of dog’s pain and makes it difficult for you to determine whether your dog experiences pain or not. Therefore, taking your dog’s willingness to perform certain activities as a benchmark for pain assessment might be somewhat misleading.

Dog pain tolerance: how to assess whether my dog is in pain?

Observation-based owner questionnaires

Several observation-based owner questionnaires and clinical measurement instruments (CMIs) have been developed and validated to assess and determine if, and to what extent, a dog is in pain.

Whilst each of these questionnaires take a slightly different approach and angle to determining and assessing the pain tolerance in your dog, it is essential to keep in mind that your dog might not display symptoms all the time or to varying degrees (especially when they engage in high value activities and endorphins are being released).

I would like to add another worksheet developed by UK based veterinarian Hannah Capron from Canine Arthritis Management, a website every dog owner should consult if their dog has been diagnosed with arthritis.

The ‘Suspicion of Chronic Pain’ form looks at the following four changes in your dog:

  • Behaviour Change (e.g. sleeps more, less playful, does not always greet you at the door anymore)
  • Capability Change (e.g. does not jump into car with ease anymore/ has to reshuffle to make the jump/ has near misses/ or is even unable to perform this jump)
  • Gait Change (e.g. slower, stiffer, shorter strides, sways hips when walking, lameness, skip in a stride, bunny hopping, unsteadiness)
  • Posture and Physical Appearance Change (e.g. loosing weight of back end, pulls hind limbs under torso, saggy topline, roached back, overdeveloped shoulder and chest region)

Your dog does not have to exhibit all of the above in order to experience chronic pain. They might only show a few of the symptoms and these symptoms might be very mild and intermittent (not always present). However, this would be the perfect time to intervene and start supporting your dog in their journey of managing pain. Do not wait until the symptoms are worse as this could mean your dog will live with unmanaged chronic pain.

Key Takeaways

  • Simply because your dog still can perform an activity, does not mean they should perform it (e.g. jumping in/out of car, couch, bed; fetching the ball; etc)
  • Engage your dog in mentally stimulating activities which do not have an impact on their joint health
  • It is important to notice pain in its early stages so it can be addressed and managed appropriately with physical therapy (massage, myotherapy, rehabilitative exercise therapy), environmental modifications (ramps, doggy stairs, rugs on slippery floors, etc) and if necessary, with pain medication.
  • If caught early enough and managed appropriately, your dog can life a happy and long life

If you like to know more about how Paws4Paws can help to manage your dog’s pain with massage, myotherapy and exercise therapy, please contact us through our contact form or via email on sandra@paws4paws.com.au.