Help your dog by learning to recognize mild orthopedic pain


One of the hardest aspects of monitoring dog health and wellness for many people, is the ability to recognize and acknowledge mild to moderate orthopedic pain. Because mild to moderate orthopedic pain can eventually lead to more significant changes in function, the sooner we manage it, the better the long term outcome will be. For your dog, that may mean added years of fun activity with you!

Why is it hard to recognize mild orthopedic pain in dogs?

  • We don’t know what we don’t know. It takes years of experience to visualize the changes associated with mild orthopedic pain.
  • Dogs don’t speak english and humans don’t speak dog. We rely on observation of changes in behavior and function.
  • Many times changes in behavior or function associated with orthopedic pain are so gradual that we do not perceive them until they are blatantly obvious.
  • Dogs seem to have an amazing ability to tolerate pain and discomfort.
  • Mild pain is just that – until it’s not. It generally does not affect a dog’s desire to participate in life’s daily activities, so is less likely to be treated.

Like all health related concerns, orthopedic pain is best prevented – easier said than done given that many orthopedic conditions such as hip and elbow dysplasia are congenital. If it can’t be prevented, the sooner it is treated the more likely treatment will be successful and the more likely your dog will lead a more functional, comfortable and happier life.

Five ways to help you asses mild orthopedic pain.

  1. Posture.
    1. Is your dog standing and sitting symmetrically, or do you notice a consistent transfer of weight to one side or the other?
    2. Do paws look symmetrically weight loaded when the dog is standing or sitting? Does one appear to cover a larger surface area when placed on the ground? Does your dog “point” one foot in a different direction than the other?
    3. In a standing position, with head facing forward and center, is your dog’s back rounded or does it have a sway? Curved to one side or the other?
  2. Limping. If you see it, your dog is likely already compensating by at least 20%.
  3. Getting up from a sit or down. Taking longer than 1 second is an abnormal time for a physically healthy dog to move into a standing position.
  4. Hopping while running or while moving up or down stairs.
  5. Stiffness when getting up but “normal” after moving around for a few minutes.

“But my dog still likes to go to the dog park, play frisbee, fetch his ball, he isn’t acting painful…”

Of importance, you will note that the lack of desire to play or go for walks/hikes is not listed as an assessment tool for mild to moderate orthopedic pain. This is because dogs will very often, gladly participate in these activities – even through what I would consider moderate to severe pain. Many people are surprised to find out that whimpering and vocalization in response to pain is typically in response to severe, acute pain, but not often associated with mild, moderate or even severe chronic pain.

Steps to take if you think you see signs of mild to moderate pain in your dog.

  • Keep track. Make mental notations of activity level and type and the time of day you see subtle signs of pain listed above.
  • Get a diagnosis. See a veterinarian who has a lot of experience in orthopedic medicine, gait evaluation, pain management or physical rehabilitation.
  • Make a plan. This may include a change in activity type, weight management, medications, alternative care such as acupuncture, massage and specific strengthening exercises.
  • Monitor. Have the changes helped?

Hope this helps you and your dog for many years to come…

Kristin Wolter, CVT, CCRA, CCFT

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