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Why dogs don’t show pain

Do you wonder sometimes if your dog is in pain?

We see them knocking a branch or tripping over something but they just carry on as usual. Some dogs might move a bit slower but are still eager for their daily walks. And then there’s a lot of crazy playing, zooming, ball fetching canines who display a limp and then all of a sudden, it’s gone and they’re running around again just fine. Are any of them in pain, you ask?

My answer: yes, they are. But unfortunately, we can’t see it.

As a practitioner I see dogs that suffer in silence almost daily. It is sad and frustrating to think owners are not aware of their best friend’s discomfort. It is even more heart wrenching to know how much we could help their dogs if only they saw the reality. But dogs don’t show their pain for several reasons.

The first one is survival. We can understand that in the wild it would be a death sentence to show injury and pain by limping or curling up somewhere. But because we live in a happy fluffy human world, we think our dogs would be allowed to signal when they’re in discomfort so we can help them. But our dogs still play by their rules and instincts which is hiding the pain no matter what.

This also applies to their position in their pack. Wolves and other “canindae” live in gentle, friendly family groups and support each other when hunting and feeding. To keep everyone strong and healthy, food is shared accordingly e.g. the hunters get more, the young ones the softer pieces, the pregnant bitch the most nutritious meals. But an injured dog or one that is old, slow and in pain doesn’t offer any “value” to the pack and won’t get fed. They don’t waste important resources on old, injured, insignificant or useless pack members. If you want to get fed, you can’t show that you’re in pain!

Pain increases stress hormones - something that I see in my patients every day as well. Stress hormones can have other sources such as inappropriate food, over-training and obedience, lack of social experiences, boredom, illness, chasing balls, not coping in a human environment, anxieties, separation, chemicals from vaccines, wormers, fertilisers etc. Add that to the stressors of acute and chronic pain and your dog is dying (or at least developing deadly diseases) due to the permanent overload of stress hormones adrenalin and cortisol.

Being in constant pain and still carrying on like nothing is bothering them is not stoic, it is what dogs do for survival and that hasn’t changed even though we bubble wrap them and pay humongous amounts of money for food, toys, beds, vacations, day care, fluffy pj’s and so on.

Not acting upon our buddy’s pain situation is in most cases just ignorance – we don’t know what we don’t see. So, here is a checklist to identify if your dog may be in pain:

Limping / limping only after getting up

Stiffness / lameness

Groaning when laying down

Stretching very often or rarely / difficulty when stretching

Problems squatting / holding leg up when urinating

Scattered poo (not coming out in one mass) / difficulty defecating

Anal gland problems / UTI’s

Change in behaviour / mood changes / snappy / growly / stressed

Change in posture / flexibility / strength / appearance

Fatigue / tired facial expression

Change in coat (swirls, different direction), flakiness, hair loss

Disturbed sleep / rolling around / “making or digging bed”

Always laying on same side when sleeping /resting

Laying back against firm surface e.g. wall

Dislikes being touched, cuddled, groomed, brushed

Head / neck feels hot

Spatial awareness problems / imbalance / clumsiness

Chewing / licking / nibbling feet or tail

“Bum dancing” when being rubbed and scratched

Repetitive behaviour e.g. obsessive digging

Elevating head on edge of bed / resting head on top of something

Letting head hand down over edge e.g. of bed / sofa / mattress

Eating / chewing problems

Not wanting to do things they used to do e.g. stairs, playing, jumping into car

Slowing down on walks, stopping, walking behind you

There are so many things we can do to help them along and it is a package deal of treatments that helps our dogs deal with and eliminate their pain. A combination of massage, laser, physio, warm clothes or blankets during the cold or at night, supplements, homeopathics, injections, medication, change in routine (shorter walks), changes around the home (ramp, non-slip flooring, osteopathic bed) can add years to your dog’s life.

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