One of the most heartbreaking parts of being a pet parent is seeing a beloved family pet in pain. If you’re asking yourself, "How do I know if my dog is suffering?" you're not alone.
While nearly all pets will experience transient sickness or injury at some point throughout their lifetime, chronic and severe conditions warrant a sober assessment of the balance between disease management and overall quality of life. Fortunately, you are not alone. Your dog’s veterinarian can learn crucial information with a thorough workup to determine if your pet is likely to see an improvement in their condition or if suffering is likely to compound.
But first things first, how do we recognize suffering in our beloved dogs?
Signs of pain may be clear or quite subtle in dogs, and because we can’t ask them how they're feeling, it can be difficult to know when they are experiencing pain.
Common signs of pain may include:
More subtle signs of pain may include:
In addition to the above signs, trust your intuition. If you notice slight changes in your dog's behavior, appearance, or routine have them evaluated by a veterinarian who can help determine the cause and possible treatments.
If you have ever experienced anxiety you know that it can cause significant suffering if left unaddressed. Anxiety in dogs may stem from several causes ranging from environmental stress to pain, or even cognitive decline. Some of the signs that can indicate anxiety overlap with signs of pain; if your pet is exhibiting these behaviors, it is important to have a licensed veterinarian assess your pet for a diagnosis and treatment plan.
Signs of anxiety in dogs may include:
As these behaviors may be appropriate in certain situations, it can be helpful to write down when you see them occur. Be sure to note as much information as possible about what is happening leading up to the behavior. Share this with your dog’s veterinarian to help them identify patterns and potential causes. If possible, take videos of what you’re seeing; this can be extremely helpful to the vet.
Incontinence is a frustrating reality for some dogs. Fecal incontinence is not as commonly seen as urinary incontinence and both have their own causes as well as potential treatments. However, in ongoing cases that are difficult to manage, the dog is at risk of suffering physically, mentally, and relationally as anxiety builds and the stress of the situation wears on the bond between human and beloved pet.
Changes in range of motion and strength are natural with age and fortunately there are several medications, supplements and products that can aid our dogs in aging with grace. However in cases with a severe loss of mobility, secondary medical conditions often follow, as well as increased anxiety at not being able to move freely.
If your dog is in respiratory distress (dyspnea) it is an emergency situation. Not only does dyspnea cause suffering, it can quickly lead to death. Signs of dyspnea include difficulty breathing, squeaky or harsh breath sounds, and bluish tinge to normally pink mucous membranes. Seek medical attention right away for your dog if they display these signs.
Cleanliness is a virtue, but overgrooming can be a sign of an undiagnosed problem. Depending on the location and other factors, excessive licking could indicate a range of concerns from allergies to incontinence or even nerve damage.
Unexplained weight loss, vomiting, diarrhea, ocular changes, changes in your pet’s posture and the like are clear indicators that your dog needs to be evaluated by a veterinarian. These may be signs of transient disease or they may indicate your pet is suffering a more serious illness or injury.
Finally, loss of appetite can indicate suffering. Many folks have believed that as long as a dog is eating, he or she must not be suffering, right? While a loss of appetite can certainly be a sign of suffering, hopefully you now see that there are many other indicators of distress that our canine companions may show before losing their appetite.
If you believe your dog is suffering, the most important step is to determine if there is a viable path forward out of that suffering. Many times with early and appropriate intervention the problem can be corrected or managed to alleviate distress. As your dog’s advocate, you and their veterinarian can work together to determine if treatment is possible and whether the situation is likely to be transient or chronic, mild or severe, and static or progressive.
If your dog is in the unfortunate category of being diagnosed with a chronic progressive condition it can be helpful to become familiar with a quality of life assessment tool. Such tools consider factors like your dog's mobility, appetite, pain, happiness and can generate a numeric score representing their overall quality of life in an objective manner. These assessments can be very powerful when repeatedly taken at regular intervals to monitor for changes or trends.
Even when it is clear that there is no path forward and that the next right thing is humane euthanasia, the finality of the decision and the emotional toll weighs heavily on all who are involved. It’s no wonder that the struggle is exponentially difficult when a beloved dog is experiencing a slow but steady decline. Whenever the time is right, an in-home euthanasia veterinarian can help you alleviate your dog’s suffering in the comfort and privacy of your home.
Here are our frequently asked questions to help you feel fully informed and at ease.