Updated: Sep 12, 2019
I am always amazed how often pain is overlooked in dogs (and cats). This month is Animal Pain Awareness Month (also Pain Awareness Month for people!) The type of pain we most often deal with in lame dogs is chronic pain. When a dog is howling, screaming or trying to snap at someone, it's obvious the animal has acute pain. But I hear so many people respond when asked, "how is your lame dog doing", or "do you think your pet is in pain", by saying, "Oh, he doesn't use the leg, but he's doing fine and is not in pain."
WRONG! Why is there a perception that a lame dog is not in pain? Maybe they are eating and drinking, maybe they can get up and go outside, but why aren't they using the leg? They are in pain! Lame dogs, whether there is a subtle lameness or a non weight-bearing lameness, are in pain, and it deserves to be worked up and treated.
The problem is, most people do not pick up on the subtle signs associated with pain. I sometimes hear that "My puppy is really laid back." Many young dogs are really laid back because they have hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, panosteitis, osteochondritis dissecans, or other problems associated with young growing dogs. If your puppy is laid back, think of how puppies normally act; they run and play until they are pooped! They generally don't just lay around. If your puppy seems laid back, insist on a heart (they could have a congenital heart problem) and orthopedic exam by your veterinarian during a wellness visit or when getting vaccinated. It is so much better to find these problems early rather than wait until there is end stage arthritis. And believe it or not, end stage, even bone-on-bone arthritis can occur by 10-12 months of age with severe hip or elbow dysplasia. These problems are best dealt with while there is still some cartilage remaining, resulting in less pain during their lifetime (in addition to a happier, less painful pet, it will probably be cheaper in the long run when you add up a lifetime of arthritis management). Remember to keep puppies thin -- that is the #1 thing you can do to slow down the progression of arthritis!
The other thing I commonly hear about older dogs is, "Well, he's getting older and slowing down." Why is he slowing down? He probably has chronic pain due to arthritis! Again, insist on an orthopedic examination by your veterinarian during a wellness visit. So many times after we find arthritis in a dog and initiate treatment, the owners come back and say that their dog is acting like a 2-year old again, and they just didn't know how much discomfort they were in. They just didn't know.
In a study that we performed at the University of Tennessee, 60% of the dogs between 2-10 years of age that were radiographed during a visit for routine dental cleaning had radiographic osteoarthritis! By the time you can see arthritis on a radiograph, there are end stage changes to the cartilage! Additionally, we excluded dogs that were suspected or known to have arthritis or joint surgery. In other words, we stacked the deck against finding arthritis. And we still found that over half of the dogs that were thought to be normal had arthritis. These owners did not realize their dogs were in chronic pain. They just didn't realize.
One thing we did in that study was have owners fill out a Functional Questionnaire. In looking at the data, there were almost always some items, usually 3 or 4, that were not rated excellent, and these dogs almost always had arthritis. Here is that questionnaire. Critically assess your dog to see if there are any mobility issues, and if there are, or you are not certain, have your dog assessed for orthopedic problems. Your dog will be happier and enjoy life more.