You love your dog and want him or her to live their best possible life, right?

It’s only natural to want to make sure that your dog feels well.  Although, sometimes it’s really difficult to know for sure if they do.

But, there are everyday clues when observing posture, movement, and behaviour that you can look out for.

In this guide I’ll take you through some of the subtle and most common signs that may mean your dog is experiencing musculoskeletal pain.

Did you know Muscles pull on bones to produce movement?

In order to understand the impacts of pain on your dog’s movement and activity levels, it’s important to appreciate that it’s the muscles that produce movement in the body.  Not only that, but we need to also understand just how much of your dog’s body is actually made up of muscle.

How Much Of A Dogs Body Is Muscle?

Well, your dog’s body is an amazing and complex place, where a whopping 45 – 55% is made up of muscle!

There are 700 of these beautiful muscles pulling on 320 bones, to produce movement.

Humans, on the other hand, have a measly 650 muscles and 206 bones.

Sorry humans that’s just how it is!

Pain in Dogs Article compares human vs dog bone count

This step-by-step guide highlights some of the most common and often overlooked, indicators of pain.  But before we look at these let’s first understand what pain is and why it exists.

What is Pain?

Well, the first thing to understand is that pain is very normal and it doesn’t discriminate.  Dogs of all ages, breeds, and abilities will experience pain at some point in their lives.

So, in a nutshell, pain is the body’s defence mechanism, a feeling, and even though it’s an unpleasant feeling, it helps to keep your dog safe from harm.

Pain is both powerful and effective because it changes how your dog moves, thinks, and behaves.

So, when the brain genuinely “perceives” the body is at risk of harm, it sends out signals to make the “at risk” area of the body hurt.  It then ensures the body takes evasive action, for example taking the weight off an injured leg.

This is outside of conscious control, but is under the control of the central nervous system.

But don’t worry the Nervous System is another topic for another day!

Pain in dogs neurons deliver signals to the brain

How Long Does Pain Last?

Well of course, that totally depends on the manner of the threat to the body whether a disease, an illness, an emotion, an injury, or trauma.  But, what I can tell you is that there are generally two timelines used to describe pain; acute or chronic.

So, what do these terms mean for your dog?

What Is Acute Pain?

Acute pain comes on very suddenly like a “pulled” or strained muscle and could potentially last up to 6 months.

It’s generally expected that acute pain disappears once the injury has healed, or the illness which caused the pain has gone away.

What is Chronic Pain?

Chronic pain usually lasts longer than 6 months.

So, even though an injury may have healed, pain could continue for months or even years.  E.g. because osteoarthritis is a degenerative condition, this would be known as chronic pain.

Let’s quickly recap what we’ve covered so far;

  • Between 45 – 55% of your dogs body is made up of muscle.
  • Muscle pulls on bones and it’s muscle which produces movement
  • Pain is a normal but powerful survival instinct
  • Pain changes how your dog moves, thinks and behaves
  • Acute or chronic describes how long pain lasts
  • The central nervous system controls pain   – and phew, we’re not going down that road today!


Dogs Cleverly Hide Pain

It’s amazing how cleverly our dog’s bodies adapt to cope with any changes in their muscular or skeletal environment.  But these adaptations, such as overcompensation, can disguise how your dog really feels.

So, if dogs hide pain so well, how will you actually know they’re in pain?

There are 5 key areas of your dog’s life to consider when assessing for pain.

Gait, posture, activities of daily living, behaviour, and for the working or dog sports enthusiast you would include performance.

Before we dive into the 5 key areas, please bear the following in mind.  Notable changes are changes that are not normal for your dog,  whether these are gradual or sudden.

Signs of Pain in Dogs

1. Gait

Gait is the dynamic movement of your dog.  Gait terminology is a whole language all of it’s own.  Specific terms such as walk, trot, and canter are widely used in the show world, and by vets and musculoskeletal therapists.  But it’s just a way of describing the way your dog moves.

These are 5 of the most common gait changes caused by pain.

  • Limping or lameness
  • Crabbing, pacing, etc,.
  • Stiffness on the move
  • Hopping or skipping
  • Slowing down on a walk

2. Posture

As opposed to gait, these are things you’ll notice when your dog is still.  This could be in a stand, a down, or a sit.  Here are some of the changes things you might see if your dog is experiencing pain.

  • They may have an arched back (called roaching or kyphosis) or a dipped back (called swayback or lordosis).
  • You could see coat/fur changes; the coat flicking up unusually in new areas
  • They may only lay to one side
  • Their back leg/knee may stick out to the side in a sit
  • You may see twitching skin down their back

3. Activities of Daily Living (ADL’s) 

No one knows their dog better than you, right?

ADL’s are activities your dog performs on a daily basis without any problem.  However, when these routine activities become an issue that’s when you should take note.  Although you might not feel these things are relevant, they could prove invaluable in your vet or therapist in determining the source of pain.  I wonder if you’ve noticed any of these?

Does your dog :

  • Appear old before their time
  • Groan getting up or lying down
  • Seem unable to get on the sofa or climb stairs
  • Slow down, lag behind or refuse to go on walks
  • Have difficulty defecating without moving in circles or your male dog may squat to pee

4. Behaviour

Sudden changes in your dog’s behaviour are a critical clue to the existence of pain.  Speaking with an experienced behaviourist recently I discovered that up to 80% of “out of character aggression” cases referred to them were found to be pain-related behaviours.  These are some of the changes you may see.

    • Sudden snapping at other dogs/people
    • Reluctance to be groomed or petted
    • Self-mutilation.  E.g. Nibbling their back end.
    • Lick granuloma (excessive licking)
    • Noise sensitivity, anxiety, withdrawn

    5. Performance

    Dog sports enthusiasts and handlers of working dogs know when there are changes in performance, that something isn’t “right”.

    Here are a couple of indicators commonly reported from each sector.

      • Agility:  Knocking poles, weave entry issues, measuring
      • Cani-cross/Sled dogs: Early-onset fatigue, reluctance to get into harness
      • Gundogs:  Early-onset fatigue, retrieval issues
      • Flyball:  Turning wide on the box, missing/avoiding hurdles
      • Service:  Reluctance to get in the vehicle, early-onset fatigue, lack of drive

      What Can You Do To Reduce the Risk of Injury?

      Here are 5  quick wins.


      1   –    Don’t over-exercise your dog

      2   –   Keep your dog a healthy weight

      3   –   Cover slippy floors at home!

      4   –   Throw away the ball launcher

      5   –   Keep muscles around joints mobile,             supple, strong, and healthy.

      Avoid pain in dogs by stopping ball chasing

      The 5 Principles of Pain in Dogs

      If you’ve noticed, or have concerns about your dog’s mobility and/or behaviour, the Canine Massage Guild have created a wonderful resource called the 5 Principles of Pain where you can easily classify your observations, not just by category but also by severity. 

      Download the 5 Principles of Pain here.

      What do you do once you’ve identified possible pain-related issues?  Have a chat with your vet, take your 5 Principles form with you as a consultation aid.  This will save so much time for you and for your vet.   The quicker the diagnosis the quicker the treatment.

      Are You Worried About How To Manage Your Dogs Pain Long Term?

      I may be able to help.

      “Clinical Canine Massage Significantly Reduces Pain Severity in 95% of Dogs”,

      Study by University of Winchester Finds

      I’m Angela Day owner of Born to Run based in Suffolk.  I’m a Small Animal Rehab Specialist, CCA Licensed Coach, and Canine Massage Practitioner. 

      I’m a Clinical Trials Contributor, Canine Massage Guild, IAAT, and IRVAP member.

      Massage is a results-driven, clinically proven therapy used to release tight sore muscles, reduce pain, and improve mobility, giving you healthier, happier dogs!

      Core conditioning sets your dog’s body up for life and helps to avoid injury. 

      If you’d like to chat about any concerns you have I’d love to hear from you. Click here to get in touch.


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