5 Painful Conditions for Dogs

Understanding When Your Pet is Hurting

Dogs aren’t always so eager to tell us when they’re in pain. To compound that dilemma, some common health conditions are also some of the most painful. It’s crucial to note a change in a dog’s behavior to help determine that something may be wrong.

Timely recognition and veterinary intervention is extremely important in any of these painful conditions.

1. Pancreatitis

Dog laying down

This quickly occurs when the pancreas, an organ near the stomach that helps digest food and controls blood sugar, becomes inflamed. Your dog is experiencing a great deal of sharp abdominal pain, like humans feel due to food poisoning or appendicitis. The condition can resolve in a few days or continue for a longer duration. Severe cases can result in death.  

Cause: Often unknown, but ingestion of fatty foods, like bacon, salmon skin or fatty table scraps are often implicated. Infection or side effects due to a prescribed medication may also cause precreatitis. Obese dogs are more susceptible, as are miniature Schnauzers.

Signs: Loss of appetite, isolation, vomiting, reacts in pain when stomach is probed, low energy, diarrhea, and irregular heartbeat in severe cases.

Treatment: Your vet will first want to control vomiting, dehydration and pain using IV fluids, anti-emetics and analgesics. Food and water are usually withheld during the first 24 hours to give the pancreas a rest. Treatment will continue until the symptoms resolve and your dog starts eating again. A special dietary food low in fat is often recommended for a month or more and sometimes for a lifetime to help prevent recurrence of pancreatitis. Fatty table scraps and dog treats high in fat content should never be given to a dog that has had pancreatitis. One other important step: Keep your dog as comfortable as possible at all times until the condition passes. Frequent movement is very painful.

2. Intervertebral Disc Disease

IVDD is an acute rupture of an intervertebral disc of the spine in the back or neck. Owners often notice a problem after their dog has participated in physical activity, like running or jumping, or after experiencing serious physical trauma. This painful condition can lead to permanent spinal cord damage causing partial or complete paralysis.

Cause: IVDD is a degenerative process in cartilage formation in the neck or along the spinal column. While it does not usually result from sudden trauma, a dog involved in a traumatic altercation and already weakened by IVDD can suffer a sudden rupture of an intervertebral disk. This can occur in any breed; however, certain breeds are predisposed, including Bulldogs and Bassett Hounds, Beagles, Corgis, Cocker Spaniels, Dachshunds, Doberman Pinschers, German Shepherds, Labrador Retrievers, Pekingese, Poodles and Shih-Tzus. Obese dogs are at further risk.

Signs: Stiffness in head, neck and back, hunched posture, yelping when touched, lameness, dragging one or more legs when walking, “toeing over” or “knuckling over” on paws when standing, tremors, reluctance to rise or move.

Treatment: Regardless of which type of IVDD your dog has (Type I or Type II), immediate treatment is required to prevent further damage, varying from rest and medical management to surgery. Pain control is one of the first priorities when treating IVDD.

3. Arthritis

Dog X-ray

Smooth cartilage covers and protects the bones that form a dog’s joints. When this breaks down, painful wear and tear can occur, leading to arthritis. While younger dogs can be affected, it is most commonly diagnosed in middle-aged to older dogs. Your dog feels constant pain in his joints, making it difficult to move.

Cause: Also known as osteoarthritis or degenerative joint disease, arthritis can be caused over time as a dog ages and joint cartilage erodes, causing bone-on-bone contact in the joint. Trauma, injury to a ligament or tendon, a bone fracture involving a joint, joint infection, dislocation and immune system issues are additional causes or arthritis.

Signs: Limping, difficulty moving, hunched posture, lameness in the front or hind legs, extended sleep or rest, irritability when pet or handled, muscle atrophy, and licking, chewing or biting at the area of pain.

Treatment: There is no cure for arthritis, but the amount of pain your dog is feeling can be reduced to enable mobility. Low-impact exercise, like walking, is recommended. Swimming and/or underwater treadmills are often used in rehabilitation. Weight management is key; not only does the extra weight increase the pain, excess fat tissue secretes hormones that actually promote pain. Canine-specific NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications) are commonly used to treat arthritis pain. Additional treatments include acupuncture, massage and stem cell therapy.

4. Bone Cancer

Cancer is the leading cause of death in dogs. Cancer of various types is not uncommon in dogs; however, bone cancer, “osteosarcoma,” is one of the most painful types of cancer. Bone cancer occurs in any breed but it is most commonly seen in large and giant breeds of dogs. It typically occurs in the front or back limbs, although it can affect the vertebrae, the upper and lower jaw, facial bones and the flat bones of the ribs. This is a severely painful condition that continues to get worse and is often fatal.

Cause: The cause of cancer is still incompletely understood; however, dogs that have had broken bones, bone disease or surgical orthopedic implants to repair broken bones seem to be more frequently diagnosed with bone cancer. Large breed, middle-aged and older dogs are more often diagnosed with bone cancer.

Signs: Lameness, limping, lethargy, weakness, swelling around the affected area of the leg, swollen upper or lower jaw, pain when opening the dog’s mouth, swelling along the spine or ribs, lack of appetite, difficulty breathing.

Treatment: A typical treatment plan involves relieving the dog’s pain to extend the quality of life. This is a very aggressive cancer, so treatment must be quickly determined. Surgical amputation of the affected bone is often recommended to extend the dog’s life, although new surgical procedures are being developed to try to remove the cancerous portion of bone in order to spare the limb. Chemotherapy and radiation are also used to treat bone cancer.

5. Periodontal Disease

Canine periodontitis

Gum disease is a progressively degenerative condition that results from untreated gingivitis in your dog’s mouth. It destroys the periodontal ligaments and substance that holds your dog’s teeth in place, leading to bone decay and very painful tooth loosening and loss. In its early stages, periodontal disease creates constant irritation and pain in your dog’s mouth.

Cause: Without routine dental care bacterial overgrowth of the gums occurs, causing inflammation, infection, irritation and bleeding. The bacteria stick to your dog’s teeth, forming plaque which thickens into tartar.

Signs: Bad breath, stained teeth, inflamed and swollen gums, red or bleeding gums, excessive drooling, reluctance to eat even when hungry, nasal discharge, swelling below an eye, tooth loss, loosening teeth, and receding gums.

Treatment: A complete dental exam, including cleaning under the gum line, scaling, polishing to remove plague and extracting any decaying teeth. More severe cases may require additional surgery to repair affected bone and tissue. A regular oral hygiene regimen is recommended to reduce the risk of further oral disease, such as brushing with toothpaste or gels and washing or rinsing with other recommended canine oral products.

If you suspect your dog is in pain, contact your veterinarian immediately. It’s worth noting that dogs should receive pain medications after surgery even if they’re acting as though they’re not in pain. Diagnoses and treatment will vary based on your dog’s health.