Puppy pain can be hidden because dog symptoms don't look like what you'd expect. How dogs show pain depends on the injury or illness. A puppy reacts differently to a painful scratch or cuts on the paw pad compared to a tummy ache or ear infection, for example.
How Puppies Show Pain
The most common signs of discomfort include vocalizations when touched in a painful place. Pups whimper, whine, cry, or yelp. They may flinch, avoid contact, hold up an injured leg or limp and beg for attention.
Some painful pets pace, become agitated and can’t get comfortable pant or drool, or refuse to eat. A puppy with a painful abdomen from a blockage due to a swallowed object often assumes a hunched position, but this also can be a sign of a painful back injury. When dealing with a hurt puppy eye, she'll squint or her eyes will water. Earaches may cause the puppy to tilt her head to the hurting side, or rub her ear against the furniture or ground. And when something on the inside of the puppy aches—such as a bone bruise, fracture, or even cancerous growth—the puppy may lick that area in an effort to relieve the pain.
Kinds of Pain
Pain tolerances vary from pet to pet, just as in people. A one-size-fits-all program won’t work. Experts say there is a five-fold variation in pain tolerance for the same surgical procedure in humans. So if a condition would be painful in a person, you should assume it’s also painful for your puppy.
Not all pain is severe or sudden or requires pain drugs. For instance, antibiotics relieve pain by curing a sore throat. Heat lamps relieve chronic arthritis pain. Water is a natural anesthetic for the burning skin pain of your dog's allergic reaction.
How Pain Works
How exactly does pain work? Damaged tissue releases chemicals that sensitize nerve endings. Aggravated nerves send pain signals up to the spinal cord to the brain. The brain recognizes the sensation and shouts, “Dang, that smarts!” and triggers a protective reflex. This “learned avoidance” teaches the puppy to pull back her nose from the candle flame, for instance, and encourages her to favor and hold up a bruised paw so it heals.
Extreme pain, though, causes a more complicated natural response that depresses immune function, interferes with blood clotting and wound healing, and negatively affects the cardiovascular system. Extreme pain can also permanently rewire neural pathways to create a “pain memory” that keeps pets feeling pain long after the injury has healed. It’s as if the normal highway a nerve impulse travels is repeatedly forced to “detour” from the safe path and instead leap off the same painful cliff.
Medicine to prepare for dog surgeries can prevent pain memory. Studies show that pets need less pain medicine after they wake from surgery if given preemptive pain control. This also reduces the amount of general anesthetic required and reduces post-surgical side effects. Pets also tend to recover more quickly when pain is appropriately managed.
Pain Management for Young Dogs
The most common pain relievers are over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin. NSAIDs can be very helpful for a variety of painful conditions, from arthritis to cancer.
But pets require specific dosages and metabolize drugs differently than people. Human pain medicines may be dangerous to pets. For example, puppies can develop ulcers from human-type aspirin products. Cats can die if given people- or dog-specific pain medicines. Pain control options from your veterinarian are always the best and safest choice for pets since they address the specific type of pain as well as the age and even breed of your pup.
Narcotic pain relievers for severe pain, such as morphine, codeine, and Demerol, are available only by prescription. Some medicines can be compounded into peanut butter or fish paste so your pet takes it more willingly. After surgery, drains can deliver continued pain relief into the chest and abdominal cavity, the joint, or even into the bloodstream. Chemotherapy and radiation relieve certain kinds of cancer pain. A “pain patch” delivers an opioid drug transdermally, through the skin.
Depending on the condition being treated, pain medication may, or may not, be included. Ask your veterinarian about pain policies and procedures, and if there might be an extra cost or if it’s part of the fee. Any time your puppy has a sudden change in behavior, please have her checked by the doctor because a health issue often can be addressed and solve the issue.
Some animal hospitals cut costs by eliminating pain medicine. Be aware that while anesthetics and tranquilizers keep pets asleep during a treatment, they do not necessarily relieve pain once your pet wakes up. Providing proper pain medicine helps pets recover more quickly and completely. It’s also the right thing to do.