Dogs and Pain

Since dogs cannot easily tell us that they are in pain and signs may be subtle, it’s difficult to identify pain. There are many misunderstandings regarding pain in animals. For example, it is thought that a dog that is not moaning or crying out is pain free. This may not be the case. Most animals are not vocal about their pain. From a survival point of view, it was to an animal’s advantage, when still wild, to suffer silently and not draw the attention of predators to themselves.


Humans are not the only mammals that can suffer from osteoarthritis (OA). Unfortunately, dogs can develop OA too.  This is a chronic disease also known as degenerative joint disease. It is considered the primary cause of chronic pain in dogs and it tends to get worse with age

Osteoarthritis Affects a Dog’s Mobility

OA can affect one or more joints anywhere in the body; however, the most common joints affected in dogs are the hips, knees, shoulders and elbows. Most of these joints depend on a layer of cartilage acting as a cushion which also provides a smooth surface so the adjoining bones can move freely over each other.

With the onset of OA, the protective cartilage in joints wears down and this leads to painful swelling, stiffness and eventually lameness (or loss of mobility). The long-term deterioration of the cartilage is progressive and permanent.  

Behavioural and Physical Changes Could Indicate Pain

Many diseases can cause behavioural changes and osteoarthritis is one of them.

Your dog may show a decreased level of activity, occasional lameness, and a stiff gait that worsens with exercise. Excessive exercise yet also inactivity, could make these symptoms worse. Cold weather may also have a negative impact. Some behavioural signs of pain may include restlessness, pacing, snapping, lethargy and decreased appetite.

If you suspect that your dog is experiencing any pain, contact your veterinarian. He or she will most likely encourage a checkup to perform tests to determine the source of the pain. Once a diagnosis is made, a treatment plan can be put in place and your dog’s comfort level and quality of life can improve. 

OA can affect different joints and all dogs do not necessarily experience the same symptoms, or the same combination of symptoms.


A diagnosis of OA may be done based on an assessment of historical symptoms, such as decreased activity or stiffness, as well as a physical examination which will reveal a decreased range of motion, stiff-legged gait, deformity of the joints, and swelling or pain in the joints.

No abnormal behaviour should be dismissed. Observed and documented behavioural signs could help to diagnose OA. 

If it is found that your dog is affected, there are pain management medications. The right medication can help put your best friend back in motion by effectively relieving pain and inflammation.

Possible Causes of Osteoarthritis

The main cause is not clear, but many secondary causes have been identified. They include physical trauma, for example shoulder / kneecap dislocation and abnormal development / birth defectsfor example elbow or hip dysplasia. Obesity should also be taken into consideration since excess weight puts additional, unnecessary stress on joints. Risks of developing OA may increase in cases where steroid treatment is prolonged or if a dog already suffers from other diseases such as, diabetes or hyperlaxity.

Pain Relief for Dogs with Osteoarthritis

Unfortunately, there is no cure, but nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can help relieve pain and improve quality of life by making the condition more manageable. Physical therapy can also be explored and some owners have turned to surgery.

If your dog is diagnosed with osteoarthritis, your veterinarian can advise you on living with and management of pain in dogs with OA. For pain relief leading to a better quality of life, scheduled check-ups and monitoring of the condition is essential.

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