Closeup of dog paw
Headaches? Throat ache? Bellyache? Ever wondered if your dog’s got one? I do all the time.

After all, It’s hard to tell just how much our dogs suffer these simple maladies. Though they’re common enough in humans to consider them likely enough occurrences in pets, we’re not sure how seriously our pets feel them. 

Other aches and pains, however, we veterinarians know more about. When we see patients arrive bearing specific signs of discomfort, we tend to know where they’re coming from, and we have more than an inkling as to how much they hurt.

But that doesn’t mean most dog owners do. In my experience, owners can often miss the many subtle signs of pain dogs exhibit: a slight change in appetite, a newfound reticence to interact with others at the park, an occasional unwillingness to jump on the sofa or run recklessly down the stairs.

To be sure, pain can present itself dramatically — especially in cases where sudden traumas mean serious injury. But most aches and pains don’t fall into this category, which is why dog owners should know there are plenty of conditions to consider when their dogs just aren’t acting up to snuff.

When Pain Goes Unheeded

Here are the seven most overlooked or misunderstood maladies I tend to observe in my canine patients:

1. Corns and other foot pad lesions. Limping may be obvious but corns aren’t always. That’s because owners don’t often know dogs can get them (especially Greyhounds). What’s more, few understand how painful, insidious and life-altering foot pad lesions can be. Burns, scrapes, calluses and corns are murder on a dog.

Nail-related injuries in dogs (as with rips, snags and cracks) and ingrown toenails can also prove impressively painful.

Signs of a potential foot pad or nail issue include limping and excessive licking at the paw. Painful corns may be removed, but they can come back. And because paws are so often in the dirt, care must be taken that none of these lesions becomes infected.

2. Panosteitis. When a young dog starts to limp, most owners tend to think about strains and sprains. Savvy veterinarians, however, are quick to pick up on the telltale signs of panosteitis, a condition plenty of pet people like to refer to as “growing pains.”

Severe pain when palpating the “long” bones of the limbs (usually the ulna, radius, humerus or femur) is the most obvious sign (especially in large or giant breeds), but some pups can be remarkably stoic and show no evidence of pain save a quieter demeanor. An X-ray or two may be needed to confirm the diagnosis.

Thankfully, this condition eventually resolves on its own, but pain medications and rest are often called for in the meantime.

Dog with red eyes
3. Corneal ulcers. Around the height of summer I almost poked my eye out with a chopstick. Wow, did that hurt! The funny thing is that the initial insult to my eyeball wasn’t the most impressive part. The fact that I felt like the chopstick was still in my eye 24 hours later was the larger concern.

Luckily, we humans can speak our minds and get the relief we need. Dogs? Not so much. A little squinting is as much as some will ever display. Others may have a bloodshot appearance to the eye, a bit of discharge, or they may show their discomfort by pawing at the eye.

Once an eye exam (often with the help of fluorescent stain) confirms the diagnosis, a dog is usually given something to control the pain and a topical eye medication. In more severe cases, a dog may need a trip to the OR.

4. Disk disease. Ever thrown your back out? “Slipped” a disk? Know someone who has? Then you probably have a decent idea how your dog feels when she stands there shivering, unwilling to eat, jump or hunch her back to evacuate her bowels.

Dogs with disk disease often have trouble walking and, depending on the location of the problem, may even drag their rear limbs. X-rays with contrast medium may be needed to definitively identify the location of the problem. Some dogs may be managed with anti-inflammatory medications, muscle relaxants and rest, but severe cases may require emergency surgery.

5. Tooth fractures and dental disease. I’ve covered this issue extensively. For this veterinarian, little rankles more than an owner who knows his pet’s teeth are infected and rotting but is unwilling to concede that his dog is experiencing pain as a result.

The not-so-subtle signs: redness and inflammation where the teeth meet the gums; gunky buildup on the teeth; loose, discolored or missing teeth; difficulty chewing; and bad breath.

“When she stops eating, I’ll start thinking about that dental, Doc.”

Makes me almost wish the owner gets a wicked cavity.

6. Otitis. Simple ear infections are one thing. After all, dogs tend to get ear infections that affect the outer, less sensitive part of their ear canals, not the delicate inner workings (as children do). But when ear infections are allowed to smolder for long periods, deeper ear structures can get infected, too. And the severe pain of that process can last a lifetime for some unlucky pups.

Dogs with outer ear infections often shake their heads, scratch their ears and exude a yeasty odor that can be detected from across the room. If the infection gets past the eardrum, the dog may have a head tilt. Veterinarians often treat the ear infection with anti-inflammatory medications and antibiotics, but for many dogs, underlying allergies may need to be addressed as well.

7. Osteoarthritis. This is almost certainly the most overlooked cause of pain in all pets — cats, too! How many times do I have to say it? If a pet starts to have trouble walking, running or jumping as he ages, he’s probably feeling some sort of discomfort. Why would you wait for an animal to communicate his misery clearly before addressing it? Especially when there are plenty of medications and foods that can help relieve the pain, not to mention the positive effects of weight loss and low-impact exercise?

Sure, there are plenty more painful conditions. These, however, should serve as perfect examples of problems that tend to either appear nonpainful or evade detection altogether. But now that you know what they look like, you’ll be less likely to overlook the not-always-so-obvious evidence of your dog’s pain.

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