Updated: Jul 24
Over half of dogs in the UK may well be in silent pain.
This is the stark summary of Dr Edward Bassingthwaighte's 2021 Ted Talk "How To Save Millions Of Pets From Silent Pain".
Even more worrying is that many owners and their experienced vets miss the subtle signs that a dog gives. Many dogs will 'live with' the pain and without shouting, moaning, whining or limping.
It is missed because:
Silent pain builds up very slowly over time and is often misunderstood as signs of aging - slowing down on walks, showing stiffness on lying down or getting up, changing how they stand and sit, changes in fur patterns.
It is present over large areas of the body this makes limping or obvious lameness less likely to occur
The quiet grumbles on getting up or lying down are thought to be part of the aging process. As humans we will often verbalise a little on getting up or down as we age and we assume this is normal in our dogs too. But very often a dog will not even make a noise when they change positions.
Increased arousal can help a dog hide their pain. Dogs will compensate for silent pain via an increase in arousal. If you experience some pain yourself you know that if you can distract your brain through an activity you love it can seem to fade - for a time. Our dogs will happily chase a ball or perform tasks they love even if they are in pain. For instance they will continue to eat normally, play with you and their toys and run around for fun. This reduces the sensation of pain - for a while at least though it can make the pain worse over time.
Silent pain cannot be seen. Soft tissue pain is invisible to x-rays, ultrasounds, MRI or CT scans - all the things a vet will use to help form a diagnosis.
Because of the above there are often no obvious fast changes in your dog’s behaviour or physical capability. So it is often missed by loving owners and experienced vets.
But chronic, silent pain is really bad for your dogs health because it actually serves no beneficial purpose. The body is geared up to protect from an acute injury - for example by using soft tissue to 'splint' an injured joint or allowing the body to shift body weight around a sore leg. But if the joint is arthritic, for example, it won't improve with immobilisation but that is exactly what the body will do to try to stabilise it. The splinting actually causes more pain around the joint and can cause more damage in the longer term. But being in pain causes your dog to move differently, placing more weight in different areas and over different joints which increases the pain felt there too.
It also takes a lot of mental and emotional energy to live in constant pain and this can often be seen over time as a slow reduction in activity, more reluctance to get on the sofa or in the car, lower mood and perhaps even more grumpiness or other behaviour changes. This will often be interspersed with periods of mania where the dog may have less pain and this lifts the mood and makes them keen to play or run once more. Invariably this mania is followed by a return to the low energy, low activity state.
What to look for in your dog
A comprehensive list of the subtle signs to look for can be found in the Canine Massage Guilds 5 Prinicples of Pain tool, but include:
changes in the way they get on / off furniture
changes in the way they walk, stand and sit - look for a more hunched stance or change in the position of their legs - splayed wider or tucked right under the body
fur that stands on end appearing in new places, often over the shoulders or rump
nibbling, licking or biting specific areas of the body - usually the feet or joints of the legs
becoming more fearful or wary of other dogs, children, strangers or loud noises
sniffing more than before on a walk and lagging behind
Massage has been life changing for Eva who suffers from arthritis, spondylosis and nerve pain
These can all suggest there might be an issue but the only accurate way is to get your dog checked over with a physical examination.
Remember many vets are not able to recognise the subtle signs of pain. There are three main factors for this:
a lack of specific training in vet school
a lack of consult time available to complete an assessment
a tendency for dogs in pain to either freak out or shut down in the vets - both of which make seeing the subtle signs very difficult.
If you suspect your dog is in pain, note down the things you are seeing that makes you concerned and book a vet appointment. Alternatively book in for a Health Check with me (or a fellow Canine Massage Guild therapist). Click here for more information on the health checks I provide.
Or book your dog in for a massage. I can help them if they are in pain, but even if they aren't it is an excellent opportunity to have a thorough, whole body treatment which will make them feel incredible.
"I am so pleased - All the hard work you've done with Bramble has been life changing for her." Karen White, Aylesbury
I also offer presentations to vet practices on massage therapy and its benefits. So if you are a vet or fellow canine therapist why not get in touch for a chat about how we can work together to support our canine clients to live happier, healthier lives.