“Listening” to your dog’s body. It’s something that, consciously or subconsciously, you do every single day. Often dogs’ nonverbal cues are just as clear as if they were speaking English.
One of the challenges of veterinary medicine is that our patients can’t share their complaints in their own words. Listening to a patient’s body—being perceptive, vigilant, and paying keen attention to body language and behaviors— is the hallmark of a great veterinarian.
Certain postures and certain behaviors in dogs usually point to certain diagnoses. While this doesn’t hold true universally, I am reminded of something my professors in vet school would often quip:
“When you see hoofprints, don’t go looking for zebras.”
I know you want the absolute best for your dog—that longest, happiest, healthiest life. To that end, I think it’s worthwhile to share seven examples of “hoofprints” and how to listen to your dog’s body to look for the horses and know when to call your vet.
If your dog is favoring a leg, even slightly, I would classify that as lameness. The cause of that altered gait could be anything from a cut on the paw pad to a cervical disc issue. And anything in between—problems with joints, tendons, ligaments, muscles, and nerves can all cause lameness.
Here’s the point I want to make on listening to your dog’s body when it comes to lameness: I’m surprised at the very high percentage of clients who point out a problem with their dog’s gait, and then say, “But I don’t think his leg hurts him.”
With good intentions and purity of heart, clients will tell me, “I don’t think my dog’s in pain, but he’s really not using his right front leg.”
Well, let’s clear that up right here and now. The dog’s in pain. If he weren’t in pain, he would be fully weight bearing on that leg. The reason he’s not is because it hurts to do so. So, if your dog’s limping but otherwise happy, I think it’s reasonable to wait, minutes to hours to see if it resolves on its own. Just like us, dogs can experience transient soreness that will spontaneously resolve.
For example, a dog may be playing in the yard or jump off the couch and land “wrong” and then favor the leg for a little bit. But in these scenarios, very, very quickly, the dog will return to soundness (no limping). And that’s your “crystal ball” sign that it was nothing to worry about.
However, if your dog is favoring a leg without improvement for more than a brief period of time, that is something that needs to be evaluated by your veterinarian. Please call and schedule an appointment because I can promise you—your dog is hurting.
2. Arched back
Picture this in your mind—a “roached” back or a hunched back in a dog, which looks more like a camel than a canine.
The backbone—which creates posture and sets the topline (the profile line that extends from the withers to the base of the tail)—becomes curved. If this is a sudden onset problem—I’m talking about a dog who normally has a straight topline, and then one day doesn’t—two things come to mind:
1. Back pain is the obvious concern. When a dog has a back problem, such as intervertebral disc disease (IVDD), often they’ll change the way that they carry themselves to guard their spine and minimize pain.
2. But the less obvious worry is tummy pain. Gastrointestinal problems, pancreatitis, stomach pain may all cause dogs to adjust their posture— either by hunching their back or sometimes preferring to get into a funny position which apparently relieves pain/pressure. It’s a version of the downward-facing dog yoga pose—the dog will have his haunches up in the back, but will go down to a praying position in the front.
Both back pain and visceral abdominal pain are typically very painful. An acute change of posture in your dog is a red flag to call your veterinarian.
3. Limp tail
Number three is kind of a strange one. It’s called dead tail. And if you’re interested in learning more, I have a whole podcast on it called Dead Tail in Dogs. This also goes by many synonyms—cold tail, broken tail, limber tail, and swimmer’s tail, to name a few.
It’s something that I never even heard mentioned in vet school. I learned about it through trial and error, well actually just error, when I missed the diagnosis early in my career and a senior colleague set me straight. Since then I’ve seen a dozen cases, including diagnosing my own dog.
As the name suggests, a dog with this condition has a tail that just hangs limp. The dog may look perfectly normal until your eye reaches the base of the tail, and you realize something is just not right. The “set” of the tail extending from the body appears odd and there is no wagging happening. This is because movement is very painful.
I learned this the hard way. The only time my beloved rescue mutt, Jacobean, ever tried to bite me was when he presented with these symptoms and I manipulated his tail during the examination to confirm the diagnosis.
Dead tail is often misdiagnosed. My sister’s dog is a prime example. She called me one morning in a panic and said, “Help! Banjo has broken his tail. I think he wagged it too enthusiastically into our brass bed and now he can’t move it.”
This type of assumption by the dog owner is common because of the way it presents, but I listened dubiously and asked a lot of questions. Indeed, “broken” tail was the diagnosis her veterinarian later made, but no fractures were involved!
Should you notice something wrong with your dog’s tail, contact your veterinarian. If dead tail is the diagnosis, the good news is that your dog should recover well with pain medications, anti-inflammatories, and supportive care.
4. Neck pain
Number four is one of the most painful conditions I see in practice and has one of the most distinctive postures—cervical disc disease. Cervical refers to the neck area and the discs are little “spacers” that sit between the vertebral bodies.
Neck pain in dogs from a slipped disc is often excruciatingly painful. Movement hurts. And so, to guard against moving as a self-preservation mechanism, these dogs don’t really move their necks.
They will hold their neck very still while tracking their surroundings exclusively with their eyes. They may even move their entire body to reposition so their eyes have a greater peripheral view.
If you take your hands and gently feel down the sides of the neck in a dog like suffering from neck pain, typically one, if not both sides, will feel as hard as a rock due to muscle spasm.
This is a very serious condition. In a worst-case scenario, it can result in complete paralysis. But neurologic sequelae aside, just based on the degree of pain involved, get these dogs to the veterinarian right away, please.
5. Ear pain
Have you ever had swimmer’s ear? My son had it this summer while we were on vacation. His ear was so painful that we elected to go to the emergency room in a foreign country.
Ear issues in dogs can be similarly painful. If your dog has an ear problem, you may see one or more of the following symptoms as you “listen to your dog’s body”:
- Pawing at the ear(s)
- Rubbing the ear(s) on the ground or on furniture
- Holding the ear(s) in a funny way
- And the most common one—shaking the head
If you see any of these symptoms, here’s what I want you to do: gently retract the flap of the ear (called the pinna) and take a peek. Look for debris, discharge, and redness/inflammation.
Next, provided your dog is fully cooperative, it’s time for the sniff test. Put your nose up to the ear and take a big whiff. Unremarkable or funky? There should be no middle ground.
Finally, compare both ears. Sometimes dogs get bilateral ear infections, meaning both ears are affected. In this case, comparing them doesn’t really help because they’re both abnormal. But if only one side is affected, you can inspect both and often clearly see the difference between the good side and the bad side.
And once again, call your veterinarian, report your mini-exam findings, and get your dog seen because it hurts. And the faster you get treatment, the faster you’ll get it resolved.
6. Squinty eye
By “squinty eye” I mean that the dog is not holding the eye completely open. This is a symptom of eye pain, most commonly associated with a corneal ulcer.
During the stressful days of veterinary school, I developed a bad habit of grinding my teeth at night. I asked my dentist about it and she offered a solution. “Oh, no problem,” she said. “I’ll make you a mouth guard.”
Well, this was twenty-some years ago and she didn’t think to place protective eyewear on me while dremmeling down this plastic mouth guard near my face.
Next thing I know, a tiny piece shot off into my eye, and the pain was excruciating. The dentist was horrified. She canceled her appointments and personally drove me into the emergency ophthalmology doctor for treatment. He removed the offending particle, but my cornea had been scratched in the process. I was unable to hold my eye fully open because of the pain. I was squinting. Your dog will do the same.
My point is that the cornea has a plethora of nerve endings and hurts a lot when damaged. If your dog is squinty, seek veterinary care as soon as possible. Eye issues can rapidly deteriorate and become emergencies fast.
Squinty-eyed dog = same day veterinary appointment!
7. Incessant licking
This is actually the most common manifestation of seasonal allergies in dogs—licking at the paws/toes, or even biting/chewing at their paws. These dogs aren’t painful like the prior six examples, but they are miserable.
The good news is that there are a lot of really great new medications available for treating allergies in dogs.
If you’ve had dogs in the past with allergies and you think, “Oh, you know, there’s really no options. My dog will either have to go on Benadryl, which doesn’t really help, or he will have to go on steroids, and deal with side effects! I’m just going to leave my dog alone and hope for better days to come when the weather changes.” I can assure you—that’s not the way it is anymore.
There are now some innovative, very specific medications in veterinary medicine that work really well and are much safer than steroids. I would encourage you to see your vet and talk about these things if your dog has allergies (or if your dog is constantly licking/chewing at the paws).
But the paws are not the only “lick target” on dogs’ bodies. If a dog is licking over a joint consistently, that can indicate pain in that joint. If a female dog is constantly licking the hind end around the vulva, that makes me wonder about a urinary tract infection or localized skin infection. Dogs who are licking around their anus are exhibiting a sign that is associated with food allergies, internal parasites, and anal gland problems.
And some dogs that lick excessively aren’t even licking themselves. Dogs can become obsessed with licking the furniture or a rug, and this may point to upper gastrointestinal disease.
All of these types of licking merit a veterinary visit because the dog’s not comfortable. A dog who is licking constantly is not the healthiest version of himself!
Giving your dog the best life possible
As we listen to our dog’s body language, it’s important to recognize what is abnormal may be associated with a physical problem that must be addressed. This is both for the dog’s long-term health, but also just because it may be painful or uncomfortable, and none of us want our dogs to live like that.
A buzz phrase in modern wellness medicine is “listen to your body.” It’s good advice! I hope you listen to your body and your dog’s too! We owe it to our “voiceless” pets to listen and get them the care they need.
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