How Do I Know If My Dog Is In Pain? 8 telltale signs you SHOUldn't ignore


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It’s a heartbreaking thing to hear our pets yelp. Yelping is one of the easiest ways for them to signal they’re in pain (and is an excellent way for your pet to score a few extra cuddles), but is yelping the only way for us to know if they’re hurting? 


Pain can occur for several reasons making it necessary for us to understand the why so we can know how to help them cope. Why do pets have pain? How do I know if my dog is in pain? How do I make the pain stop? We’re sharing vet-recommended tips to help you navigate your pet’s pain and help them find comfort!

Common causes of pain in dogs

As humans know all too well, there are more causes of pain than we’d like. And for the most part, pets can experience the same risk factors. Pain can be par for the course if your pet is aging, injured, or sick. Let’s cover the basic reasons why your pet could be experiencing pain:  

An injured pet will almost certainly have pain. Safety measures–such as walking your dog with a leash, or keeping your cat indoors–can prevent the most devastating injuries. But sometimes, pets will have accidents that we can’t control. Broken bones, sprains, and lacerations are just a few types of common injuries in pets. Here are a few everyday situations where our beloved pets can get injured:

  • Stepping on sharp objects such as rocks, glass, or metal
  • Objects stuck in the ears or paws such as thorns, barbs, or splinters
  • Injury from other animals such as bites, stings, or scratches
  • Muscular or ligament injury from overexertion or hyperextension 
  • Injury from man-made objects such as cars, fences, or tools

With so many ways to get injured, you’d almost rethink letting your pets out of your sight at all. Fortunately for our pets and our peace of mind, animals are born with instincts to help them steer clear of most dangers.


Aging is a part of life for both people and pets, but that doesn’t mean it’s always pleasant–and pain can be an unavoidable part of our pet’s aging process. As their ligaments, muscles, and joints weaken after years of activity, our pets may find themselves experiencing pain or discomfort in new ways. They may experience pain more often when:

  • Running
  • Jumping 
  • Climbing
  • Lying down 
  • Standing up
  • Playing 


When your pet is under the weather, they may not feel comfortable. Stomach issues can cause cramping and abdominal pain. Influenza–also called “canine flu”– can cause muscle aches and joint pain from inflammation. If your dog is sick from exposure to a parasite, any of the symptoms above could be causing them pain. Ear infections can also be excruciatingly painful–causing pressure, throbbing, and itchiness–and cause long-term damage if left untreated.

Dental Problems

Your pet’s teeth are one of the more complex causes of pain to identify. Tooth pain can be caused by abnormal growth, infection, gum disease, or structural damage (e.g., a cracked tooth). If your dog whimpers while chewing or seems to be avoiding meals, these behaviors could point to dental pain. Infected teeth if left untreated can lead to the formation of painful abscesses that often require surgical treatment.

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8 signs that your pet is in pain

Now that you know the causes of pet pain, how can you help your pet? If you’re wondering how to tell if your dog is in pain, first you’ll need to keep an eye out for symptoms:

1. Yelping

Yelps will be sharp, sudden, and can startle you right out of your shoes. Yelping is a dog’s knee-jerk reaction to physical or emotional pain–in some cases, a dog will yelp in fear without being physically injured. Rather than yelping, cats will let out a sharp, drawn-out yowl if they’re scared or in pain. If you’re wondering how to tell if your dog is in pain, yelping is a big red flag!

2. Whining/Whimpering

If something hurts and your pet can’t make the pain stop, they may whimper or whine for a prolonged period. This could be a sign that your pet needs help managing whatever pain they are experiencing.

3. Favoring/Avoiding

Does your pet favor one paw or avoid its use altogether? It could mean your pet has an injured extremity and it's too painful to use it normally.

4. Limping

Not unlike the symptom above, limping is when your pet avoids walking or putting weight on a specific leg or paw. They’ll do this as a way to reduce pain in the affected extremity.

5. Hesitation

Senior pets who experience pain when jumping onto a couch may hesitate–or ‘false-start’–a few times before finally launching themselves upward.

6. Loss of appetite

Loss of appetite doesn’t just happen with dental pain or stomach issues; oftentimes the malaise associated with chronic pain and ongoing discomfort can cause your pet to lose their once-healthy appetite. If this happens, contact your vet immediately for pain management options.

7. Tail between the legs

If your cat or dog’s tail is tucked between their legs, it could be a sign of emotional pain like stress, anxiety, or fear. In some cases, this could also indicate pain or injury in the tail itself. 

8. Ears pulled back

Both dogs and cats may flatten or pull their ears back when something is wrong. This behavior is most commonly linked to feelings of fear or, in some cases, aggression, but can also indicate emotional distress caused by pain.

Types of pet pain and why they happen

Not all pain is felt the same way by your pet. Pain can happen anywhere in your pet’s body and in multiple places at once, making it difficult to identify the cause. The best way to approach pain management is with an awareness of how our pets experience pain and how it might manifest. 

Acute Pain 

Acute pain is pain that starts suddenly or without an obvious cause or has only been happening for a short time. Acute pain is the brain’s way of alerting your pet: “Stop! This area needs to be left alone while it heals.” It could also mean that an infection or illness is present and needs immediate attention. Acute pain may also be expected after certain procedures or surgery–but should be discussed with your vet for proper pain management. If the pain persists or gets worse, it must be addressed. 

Chronic Pain

Chronic pain is pain that is predictable or ongoing for your pet. If your pet suffers from chronic pain, they’ll likely have lower energy levels and their mood may be affected on a long-term basis. Many senior pets are plagued by chronic pain most commonly due to age-related deterioration in the joints and muscles.

Emotional Pain 

Sometimes your pet’s pain won’t be associated with any bodily injury. It might come on suddenly or happen over time. Your pet’s emotional pain may take shape as stress, anxiety, fear, or depression. Dogs and cats experience emotional pain for a variety of reasons: 

  • After the loss of a family member or fellow pet
  • In response to a new pet or child in the household
  • When adjusting to a new environment (e.g. a new home)
  • When their environment is disrupted (e.g. home renovations)
  • In the absence of a pet parent 
  • During an injury or illness
  • As a result of trauma or abuse

Knowing your pet is in emotional pain can be just as difficult as knowing they’ve been injured or hurt. Emotional pain may take longer to heal making your love and support all the more important for your pet.

Somatic Pain 
Somatic pain occurs in your pet’s limbs and soft tissues including the skin and muscles. In humans, somatic pain is most often described as sharp and intense.

Visceral Pain 
Visceral pain occurs inside your pet’s body affecting the internal organs, muscles, or bones. While your pet can’t describe the pain to you, it will most likely feel like a dull, aching, or gnawing pain.

Neuropathic Pain 
Neuropathic pain happens due to injuries or illnesses related to the brain and nervous system. Because this type of pain is so closely related to the nervous system, it is often chronic. For these reasons, neuropathic pain might be one of the toughest pain types to identify and treat.

Veterinarian tips for keeping pets pain-free

One of our most important jobs as pet parents is to keep our pets safe and happy. This includes helping them with pain management by supporting nose-to-tail care for long-term health. Here are a few ways to keep your pet pain-free according to the experts:

Make note of symptoms

Is your dog in pain? Your pet’s pain tolerance and severity might fluctuate, but you’ll want to keep an eye out for worsening or long-lasting symptoms. Pain symptoms that seem to worsen or last longer than 24 hours should be reported to your vet.

Always be gentle

Use a tender touch when inspecting your pet’s painful spots. Handling areas that seem sensitive can cause further damage, so pay close attention to how (and where) your pet responds to your touch.

Support your aging pet

Senior pets–over the age of 7 years–can benefit from supplemental nutrients for their overall health. Decreased mobility can be a source of pain for aging pets, so using a hip and joint supplement can help support a more active lifestyle (also good for their health). Daily supplements that support mobility can help pets at any age to support joint comfort as they play all day.

Avoid stressors

While emotional pain may not seem as urgent as physical pain, it should still be addressed with the same level of care. Make note of places, people, or other stressors that trigger your pet’s distress–and avoid them whenever possible. If stressors can’t be avoided, support them with calming chews and lots of love and patience.

Scan your yard

For outdoor pets, hazards could be lurking right in their backyard! If your yard is shared with neighbors or used for alternate purposes like fix-it projects, it’s a good idea to regularly check for nails, sharp toys, and other hazardous debris.

Keep tabs on outdoor animals 

In addition to keeping outdoor areas safe, pet parents should also set up safe boundary zones. This is much easier to enforce with dogs than it is with cats who tend to roam wherever they please. For dogs, invest in fencing and always use leashes when on walks. For your outdoor cat, you could attach a small, lightweight GPS tracker to their collar to get a better idea of where they go–and how many risks there might be.

Seeing your pet in pain is always tough to see, but there are ways for you to help them through it. Keeping an eye on symptoms, areas of tenderness and other abnormal behaviors is the best foundation for a happier, pain-free pet!

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Dr. Joya Griffin | Vet Board Bio


Dr. Joya Griffin is an Ohio native and graduated from Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. She has a special interest in fungal and immune-mediated skin diseases as well as feline and equine dermatology. Dr. Joya always strives to care for her patients as if they are her own pets and loves building long-lasting relationships with their pet parents. Dr. Joya also stars in the Nat Geo WILD television series, “Pop Goes the Vet with Dr. Joya,” which highlights the challenging and mysterious cases she encounters in veterinary dermatology.

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