silent signals: petplan pet insurance explains how pets mask pain

Posted by Nicole Larocco-Skeehan, CPDT-KA on Nov 01 2013

Our dogs use their body language to communicate with us in dozens of ways, from the deliberate yip as they stand next to the door that says, “I need to go out – now!” to a subtle mouth close and eye roll that means, "What you did just made me very uncomfortable."

When it comes to determining if your furry friend is in pain, some pets are quick to show you exactly how they feel, while others hide it so well that their performance is worthy of an Academy Award.

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Since we will be donning masks later today to celebrate Halloween, I thought it was the perfect day to talk about pets who mask their pain, and how you can learn to read their silent signals.

Dogs use their mouths like we humans use our hands. Think about some familiar things that humans do when stressed (e.g., tapping on a desk, biting fingernails or wringing out hands); many canines mirror these behaviors, only they use their mouths.

Some common stress signals might include: yawning when they are not tired, licking lips or chewing when no food is present in or around their mouths, closing their mouths abruptly and tensing their jaws, or closing their mouths to push you away with their muzzles. If you are interacting with your dog and you happen to see any of these signals, take heed.

Notice what your dog’s tail looks like when he is calm and happy. Does it sit high, low or in the middle? What happens to his tail when you interact with or stroke him? Does it go up higher, or wag furiously? Does it get tucked under his belly in a submissive position? If his tail position strays from normal when you interact with him, it could also indicate discomfort.

Other signs that indicate distress in dogs include stiffening or freezing in their bodies when touched. You may also see the “whale eye,” a sharp eye roll that allows you to see the sclera (the white of the eyeball).

As both your pet's best bud and guardian, it is your job to learn her behavioral nuances. This way, you can establish a baseline of her behavior and know when she is feeling normal and when she is not. Imagine you pick up your pup’s paw to wipe off mud before she walks into the house and she growls. Is your precious pup just feeling grumpy, or is something deeper going on?

Well, let's look at the context. Has your dog been tolerant when you play with her paws for her whole life, but for some reason, today didn’t like it? If so, it could be more than a mood swing; perhaps she was momentarily startled or irritated by something, or perhaps she is in pain. On the other hand, if your dog has historically had issues with you touching her paws and this happens very time you try to wipe them, then it is likely behavioral.

If you see something out of sorts — no matter how subtle it is — you’ll know that it's time to get to your vet to have her checked out. Many times, a behavioral change can be the first indicator that your pet is not feeling great. Sometimes, it is the only indicator.

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