It seems that there is a wide misconception of how much pain our dogs might have to be in for us to actually notice.
This is really important to realize. Dogs don't go around groaning, whining and complaining. Their instinct is to hide their pain. In a pack, a dog showing weakness will not only have to endure his pain, but also face challenges for his social rank. Clearly there is no advantage to that.
Yes, sometimes pain is clearly communicated by yelps, whimpers, and in case of excruciating pain even screaming. This is true for acute type of pain, as an immediate reaction to injury.
- you've heard your dog yelp when you stepped on his toe. This means: “Ouch! Hey, you stepped on my toe, and it hurt!” It is also a message to you, to be more careful next time.
- a whimper is both an expression of pain and fear. I read this as: “This hurts, I'm afraid, please stop, I give up!”
- a series of yelps, clearly a more intensive message than a single yelp, expresses a high degree of pain or fear. It also communicates surrender.
- screaming, as you might guess, is an expression of extreme pain or fear and I hope that you'll never get to hear that.
Some signs are easy enough to figure out. If your dog's leg is hurting - you might notice lameness. Often though, you need to look for more subtle messages:
- changes in posture or gait
- reluctance to get up, use the stairs or jump in the car
- panting and pacing
- asymmetry in the body (Do shoulders appear broader than normally? Is one leg more muscular than the other?)
- any changes in behavior or routine
Unless we understand that, we might inadvertently leave our best friends suffering.
Further reading: Pain and Pets