As a dog trainer and canine behaviourist, I was very interested to hear at a recent talk that as many as 1 in 4 dogs presenting at the University of Lincoln’s behaviour clinic with behavioural problems have medical issues [Daniel Mills, Dog Symposium 2017]. And as we all know, with medical issues come pain and discomfort. The big problem in identifying pain in dogs is twofold. Firstly, dogs hide pain well. Secondly, they can’t tell us when they are in pain.
Certain things that cause acute pain can be easily identified by owners or vets- open wounds, broken bones, etc. But I’m going to invite you to think for a moment about your own experiences of pain. Is most of the pain you experience something that causes an obvious physical change in your movement, or anything that would show up on an X-ray or a medical exam? Would anyone know you were suffering if you didn’t tell them? Consider things like:
- Headaches and migraines;
- Muscle pain;
- Back pain;
- Stiff joints;
- Period pain;
- Dental pain;
- Neural pain
Whilst not necessarily ‘serious’ medical conditions, any of these things could impact rather seriously on your humour and performance. In human medicine, 80% of diagnoses are made via a clinical exam [http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/1105870], which involves getting an in-depth description from the patient of their symptoms. Dogs don’t have the ability to give us this information verbally. That means that we often have to use our own observation skills and our knowledge of our dogs to work out if our dog could be in pain.
A dog who is in pain will be stressed, and like ourselves, more likely to be in bad form. They may also seem ‘less compliant’, if the things we are asking them to do exacerbate their discomfort. Given the relatively high probability of your dog’s behavioural problem being health or pain related, this is something you should always consider.
My job is as much about changing human behaviour as it is about changing canine behaviour and in this article, I’d like to review some of the common behaviours that I see in humans that could be contributing to pain in our dogs, as well as some of the signs that our dogs could be in pain and some of the avenues available for treating pain.
Over-exercising puppies and young dogs
Our dogs’ growth plates don’t close until they are as much as 2 years old. In bigger dogs, it takes longer for this process to complete than in smaller dogs. The growth plates are softer than bone and therefore more susceptible to injury. This is why puppy owners are advised to limit their puppy’s exercising. The advice is generally 5 minutes per month of life once or twice a day (i.e. for a three month old puppy, the maximum amount of exercise they have should be two 15 minute walks a day).
High impact exercise should be absolutely minimised. This includes activities like jumping on (and particularly off) furniture, going up and down stairs, in and out of cars etc. Remember that asking a puppy to repeat any motion time and time again has the potential to cause damage. This includes asking them to chase balls or to sit down before anything happens (many people ask their puppies to sit before crossing each road, before getting fed, before getting a treat, before opening a door, etc.). Sitting down may seem like the opposite of exercise, but try sitting down on the floor and getting up again several times. And the older you are, the harder this will be!
The physical impact of over-exercising your puppy may not be immediately apparent, but growth plates can be fractured or damaged, and dogs who were over-exercised as puppies will be at increased risk of painful and irreversible conditions such as osteoarthritis by the time they are 6 or 7 years old [Massage and Physical Therapy for Dogs, Andy Mead and Julia Robertson].
Thankfully, people are increasingly embracing positive training methods. However, I still see many dogs being ‘trained’ to walk nicely on the lead by having their leads yanked each time they pull. The anatomy of the dog’s neck is quite similar to our own, so it is of no surprise that studies have found that collars can do damage to the neck, back, eyes and thyroid (http://www.dogbrochures.com/brochures/88/your-dog-using-collar-walks).
Other examples of training methods that could cause pain are seemingly harmless exercises such as getting the dog to walk on one side of you at all times, and encouraging them to look up at you. This will pull their body out of balance and cause discomfort. I once had a desk job where people used to often come and stand to the left of my desk to talk to me, and I always found that after a few minutes of looking up and to the side my neck began to ache and I began to wish they’d just go away!
Much of the equipment we use on our dogs has the potential to cause pain. In my experience this is particularly true of anything that is marketed as being ‘anti-pull’. If you think about it, there are only two ways that a piece of equipment can physically prevent a dog from pulling. It can either cause pain, or it can inhibit the dog’s movement, which will pull them out of balance, and subsequently, cause pain.
Collars– Even if we leave aside electric shock collars, prong collars and choke/check chains (which as far as I’m concerned are indisputably barbaric), half check chains, martingale collars and slip leads are in frequent use. These items tighten around the neck if the dog or the human pulls. Even regular flat collars put pressure on the dog’s neck and risk damaging the complex layers of tissue, bones, and nerves in the neck. As well as neck and spine pain, use of a collar can also cause damage to the nerves which run down a dog’s legs from their neck, and cause an uncomfortable tingling sensation which can lead to excessive licking of the legs or paws. Collars can also press on the thyroid, causing lasting damage. Thyroid problems can impact on behaviour and can cause both fearful and aggressive behaviour in dogs. Read more about collars here.
Head halters– I have never seen a dog who looks comfortable in one of these. They pull the head into an unnatural position, prevent the dog from sniffing and from communicating with other dogs. They can also ride up the snout and rub against the dog’s eyes, which must be excruciating.
The wrong type of harness– I’m a real believer in the use of a well-fitting harness, but the wrong harness can do as much damage as any of the other equipment listed here. Harnesses which inhibit the movement of the front legs can lead to arthritis of the shoulders [Martin Fischer, PDTE AGM 2015]. Ones with a front ring to clip your lead onto can force the dog to walk sideways, again pulling them out of balance. Harnesses with the strap too close to the front legs can chaff as a dog walks.A good harness will have a Y shaped front which will distribute weight across the thorax rather than the neck, allow full movement of the front legs, and not chaff behind the front legs.
There are many ways in which your dog’s exercise regime could be doing them harm- too much, too fast, exercising without warming up or warming down, not enough rest periods, etc.
Something people often forget to consider is that engaging in activities which flood the system with adrenaline can mask pain, allowing the dog to do themselves harm or exacerbate existing injuries. One such example would be activities that trigger the ‘prey/chase’ response in your dog, such as ball play, squirrel chasing, etc. Even old or infirm dogs will sometimes seemingly ‘forget’ they have pain once a ball (or squirrel or cat!) appears, as their excitement and the adrenaline in their bodies pushes it aside. However, once the adrenaline wears off they will surely pay the price for this rather extreme activity.
It is also not unusual for otherwise healthy dogs to damage their cruciate ligaments in this sort of play, which often involves fast starting, leaping, twisting and sudden stopping.
Another risk factor for pain and injury in our dogs is not ensuring that they are conditioned for exercise they do. If your dog goes for a twenty minute amble around the block when you get home from work Monday-Friday, and then heads out for a fifteen mile run on a Saturday morning, with little or no warm up, you’re asking for trouble! Likewise, driving them to the park or beach and allowing them to immediately tear around like lunatics is less than ideal. A leash walk or other form of slower exercise will help them warm up and help protect their muscles from injury.
As I mentioned previously, dogs hide discomfort well, which can make it difficult to identify when your dog is in pain. Getting to know your dog and what is normal and abnormal for them, and checking them over on a daily basis, will help ensure you can pick up on even the smallest signs of pain or ill-health. During my education with Turid Rugaas, she recommended a daily ‘saumfaring’ or thorough checking over of your dog- looking for heat, coldness, lumps, bumps, change in fur, tension, increased sensitivity to touch, change in heart rate, etc.
Although by no means an exhaustive list, you might notice some of the following symptoms in a dog who is suffering pain:
- Panting when it’s not hot;
- Pacing or finding it hard to settle;
- Increased heart rate (for more info on your dog’s heart rate check our Agnes’s super website- http://www.dogpulse.org);
- Reluctance to move or partake in activities they usually find enjoyable;
- Lethargy or sleeping more than usual;
- Unusual or excessive grooming- is your dog licking themselves excessively? Biting or nibbling themselves? Scratching a particular spot a lot?
- Heat in certain areas of the body- heat can be an indicator of pain or inflammation;
- Seeming less interested in food;
- Whining or yelping;
- Change in posture;
- Change in coat. If the hair is not lying properly, or is dryer in patches, this could also be an indicator of an underlying muscular issue;
- Change in gait or movement- is your dog avoiding putting weight anywhere? Avoiding using a limb? Seemingly unable to move slowly (moving slowly and deliberately often requires more balance than moving at speed)?
Obviously the first stop if you suspect your dog is in pain is the vet! If your dog is suffering from acute pain caused by an injury they may need surgery or a lot of rest.
If the pain is pathological and caused by something not curable, your vet may be able to recommend painkillers or supplements to help manage the pain. There are a variety of pain management medications available, some used more commonly for short-term use, and others for longer term use. Your vet will be able to recommend the best option for your dog.
It’s easy to underestimate the affect that pain can have on behaviour- dogs, like us, can become grumpy or defensive if they are in pain, and this can manifest in behaviour which is perceived as ‘aggressive’. Veterinary behaviourists will sometimes use pain medications in the treatment of behavioural problems, and in the absence of the dog having the ability to verbalise the cause of their behaviour, this can be a useful diagnostic tool. If the undesirable behaviour reduces on a course of painkillers, this is a good indicator that pain is an influencing factor.
Complimentary therapies are also available that can help relieve pain in dogs. Canine physiotherapists, massage therapists or chiropractors may be able to provide useful treatments for your dog. In both Ireland and the UK, you will need a referral from your vet to avail of these services.
Supplements exist which are supposed to help manage some sorts of pain, such as Yumove, a supplement to support healthy joints and relieve some of the discomfort caused by conditions such as arthritis.
The use of CBD oil is also growing in popularity for treating inflammation and pain. This is made from the cannabis plant, but does not contain THC (the psychoactive element), so your dog will not be high or stoned from this! Other people swear by the use of turmeric or golden paste, which has been hailed for its anti-inflammatory properties.
But the most important aspect of managing our dogs’ pain may well lie in our own ability to acknowledge and respect the fact that they may be in pain. Don’t assume they are being stubborn or spiteful if they don’t wish to come for a walk. Don’t pull them along if they’re walking slowly. If you’ve asked them to sit and they refuse, consider the fact that sitting down and getting back up again might just be too difficult at that time. Do not ask them to do things which are incompatible with their age, conformation or state of health.