How to Help a Puppy in Pain

Puppy Pain and How You Can Help
A puppy sitting on the perimeter wall around Duke University East Campus in Durham, North Carolina.

Ildar Sagdejev/

Puppy pain can seem hidden if the signs don't look like what you'd expect. How dogs show pain differs based on their personalities and on the type of injury or illness. A puppy may react differently to an injured paw pad compared to a tummy ache or ear infection, for example.

How Puppies Show Pain

The most common signs of discomfort include vocalizations when touched in a painful place. Pups whimper, whine, cry, or yelp. They may flinch, avoid contact, hold up an injured leg or limp, and/or seek attention.

There are many other ways that dogs show pain as well. This can range from pacing or becoming agitated, panting or drooling, or even refusing to eat. A puppy with a 'hunched posture' is likely in pain too; whether that is from a painful abdomen, a back injury, or another cause takes further investigation but should be a warning that something is wrong.

Dogs will also show pain related to eye and ear injuries. Most often, dogs with painful eyes will squint and rub at their eyes. Earaches may cause the puppy to tilt her head to the hurting side, or rub her ear against the furniture or ground.

When something on the inside of the puppy aches, such as pain in the belly or on the limbs, the puppy may lick that area in an effort to relieve the pain.

A dog that is in pain may avoid interaction and look for a place to be alone. Sometimes they have a worried expression as well as flattened ears and low tail carriage.

Kinds of Pain

Pain tolerances vary from pet to pet, just as in people. Some dogs will hide their pain until it is unbearable, so you can't always tell just how serious something is by your dog's reaction. If a condition would be painful in a person, you should assume it’s also painful for your puppy.

While there are many different causes for pain, there are two primary types of pain in the body. One is called nociceptive pain, and is the result of inflammation of any tissues within the body. The other is neuropathic pain which occurs from direct inflammation of nerve tissue. In either case, the signs your dog shows for pain may be the same and may include any of the signs listed above. Since the signs may be vague, it is important to get your dog to the vet anytime it is showing these signs.

How Pain Works

How exactly does pain work? Damaged tissue releases chemicals that sensitize nerve endings. Aggravated nerves send pain signals up to the spinal cord to the brain. The brain recognizes the sensation and shouts, “Dang, that smarts!” and triggers a reaction.

Extreme and chronic pain, though, cause a more complicated response that can lead to damaging side effects including depressed immune function, trouble sleeping, and cardiovascular effects. Extreme and chronic pain can also permanently rewire neural pathways to create a “pain memory” that keeps pets feeling pain long after the injury has healed.

Pain Management for Dogs

Luckily, pain management is a very important part of veterinary care and there are many safe and effective drugs and treatments available depending on your dog's condition.

Some of the most common pain medications prescribed by veterinarians are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). These drugs can be very effective at reducing inflammation, and therefore pain, for many common painful conditions. There are many safe NSAIDs labeled for use in dogs and your veterinarian can guide you to the best option.

Dogs with chronic, or nerve-associated pain may also benefit from drugs used specifically for these purposes. These include drugs like Gabapentin, and Amantadine.

Narcotic pain relievers may be used for severe pain, or in cases when an NSAID is not a safe choice for a dog. These include buprenorphine, fentanyl, morphine, and codeine, and are available only by prescription. Many of these drugs are used before, during, and right after surgery since they are very potent. They may be delivered through an IV in these case. Sometimes these medications are also given to outpatients when needed, and they may be provided in a pill, liquid, or even as a “pain patch” that can deliver the medication transdermally, through the skin.

It is always important to remember that human pain medicines may be toxic to pets, so never give your pet medication unless it is was prescribed for them. Pain control options from your veterinarian are always the best and safest choice for pets since they address the specific type of pain as well as the age and even breed of your pup.

In some cases, dogs benefit from a multi-modal approach to pain management, which means that drugs are used in combination with other therapies. Some of these additional therapies may include acupuncture, massage, physical rehabilitation exercises, swim therapy, therapeutic laser and/or joint supplements.

There are so many effective ways to help control pain in dogs and every dog will respond differently to certain drugs and therapies. If one approach is not working, be sure to contact your vet and don't get discouraged if it takes time to find the best option for your pooch. It will be worth it when that tail wag returns and your pooch is back to its playful self!