How do you know if your pet is in pain?
Updated: May 23, 2021
This is a loaded question I get all of the time. Every pet is different! As most animals were designed with nature in mind, they hide their pain as to not be seen as "weak." There are breed differences and personality differences, but in general, if you don't know your animal in and out, you likely won't notice when they are hurting.
I can't tell you how many animal owners tell me: "Oh, my dog will never bite," or, "my pet has never been sick / in pain a day in his life!" then I start feeling around and their dog almost takes my hand off when I feel their sore spots. The fact of the matter is, your pet will likely never tell you they are in pain until their "ouchies" are past the point of being just an annoyance.
So, this month, we are going to discuss:
1. How to check if your pet needs an adjustment
2. Common symptoms of musculoskeletal pain
Checking if your pet needs an adjustment
1) Range of motion
A pet should be able to touch their nose all the way to their hip on either side. They should also be able to look all the way up at the ceiling and look down/put their chin to their chest. If you pet cannot do this or is unequal from side to side, it could mean there is a neck problem or fixation that needs to be addressed.
As outlined in other blog posts, the brain controls everything via nerves. If nerves are communicating correctly, this can lead to dysfunction down the chain. A really easy thing you can check at home is your dog's reflexes. Flip the paw upside down onto the wrong side and see if your pet has the awareness to flip it back the correct way. This is called the knuckling response. If your pet doesn't have their reflex or if it is very slow, this could mean there is a disconnect from the pet's brain to their feet.
3) Flinching to touch
All dogs and horses have what is called a panniculus reflex; there is a small muscle (cutaneous trunci) under the superficial layer of the skin that is supposed to "flinch" when flies land on them. This muscle should "flinch" when there are flies, but not in reaction to things like you petting them, rubbing them, or applying gentle pressure. You may notice when you run your hand along your pet's spine, there are areas where they flinch more than others. This could be areas that need to be adjusted.
4) Asymmetry / change in posture
Look at your dog: Are they able to stand "square" with all 4 feet in a rectangle? Do they arch their back up into a "C"? Do they have a sway back with their belly sagging towards the floor? Do they have their head slightly turned towards one side? These posture changes may be due to pain.
If you have a smaller dog, hold their back legs in extension. Is one leg shorter than the other? Often leg length discrepancy is due to pelvic fixations.
Common signs of musculoskeletal pain
Now that we covered the things you can check, what about symptoms you can see?
1) Change in behavior or performance
This is the BIGGEST thing I look for and there is a solid reason why: we are all creatures of habit. Most animals have their routine. The biggest sign something is wrong for animal owners is "my dog has stopped eating / drinking" or "my dog used to be the happiest dog, but now he snaps at me" or "my dog won't play like he used to."" These not so small things add up over time and can point you in the direction of your animal needing an evaluation. If you have a performance animal, it may look like they can't jump as far or turn as fast as they used to. Subtle changes add up!
2) Exercise intolerance and lethargy
This is for a lot of geriatric pets. In general, if your joints were aching, would you want to get up and run around? Probably not. The same is true for these animals, especially those with arthritis. A lot of these animals lay around the house, sleep a lot, and cannot be bothered to get up and move around. Some animals just have this personality, but in general, all dogs and all horses should be able to take a 15 minute walk around the block without argument.
3) Continuous licking/grooming of a body part
(This one goes with a grain of salt. Some animals have anxiety / allergies and this symptom can be due to that.) Continuous grooming to the point of balding or rubbing skin and hair off is usually a sign of nerve pain. Many vets will call these resulting skin lesions "lick granulomas." I attribute this behavior to the animal having "creepy crawlies" or the feeling of ants under their skin that an animal will try to relieve by "gnawing" their arm off. Lick granulomas can be caused by parasites, allergies, behavior, or neuropathy... so be sure to keep an eye out and notice the patterns of these lesions on your pet.
4) Gait changes, abnormal postures, limping
Again, seems obvious, but not really. Equine lameness evaluation is an art form. All animals will do their very best to appear like they are fine because they are always in survival mode. A shortness in stride can often get missed, slight limp is more obvious, and then limp paralysis is hard to miss. There are more subtle things that often get missed like: being unable to sit square ("puppy sitting"), holding head off to one side, inability to jog evenly ("ambling"), inability to pick up a canter leads, and laying only on one side. Again, I often have to point these out to the owner, but these small things do add up.
6. Crying out when being picked up/ putting on harness
I think this goes without saying, but if your animal experieinces something that shouldn't cause pain and then they cry out, they probably have something that's ouchy. Animals often don't cry for the hell of it. Often neck or back pain can cause these reactions to occur.
I want to let you know you came to the right place for integrative and holistic therapies for your pet!
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When choosing adjustments for your pet, choose someone licensed, trained, and certified.