How to Know When Your Dog’s in Pain and How to Help Them

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How to Know When Your Dog’s in Pain and How to Help Them

Written by Pamela Marie Cyran

You feel the pop and the instant sting. Maybe you cry in pain because it’s a first-time injury, or maybe you hang your head in defeat because this is the fourth time you’ve sprained your ankle in three years.


Either way, your expressions are visible. Your pain is visible. And you communicate this pain in detail to your physician, and maybe your friends and family too. You then push through a series of exercises designed to increase your strength and mobility. Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation. Repeat. (And if this is the fourth time spraining your ankle, you’re really going to try your best this time around.)


But—what about our dogs? Our best friends, our fur-babies? How do we know when they’ve sprained a joint or torn a muscle? Turns out, it’s not as simple as seeing signs of pain.


“Dogs are stoic animals that often do not show obvious signs of pain,” said Dr. Jennifer Lyons, physical therapist and owner of Paw Mobility Animal Rehabilitation & Wellness in Beverly, Mass. “We often think, ‘my dog’s not in pain, they’re not yelping,’ but that’s really their last resort.”


Instead, dogs will give you subtle signs of their pain or discomfort, said Dr. Lyons. Your dog might move differently while walking or chasing after a tennis ball. Their standing or sitting posture may shift and favor one side. They may pant heavier than usual or repeatedly lick the same spot. These slight changes are often missed or misinterpreted.


“On the dog end, it goes back to survival, they try not to show signs of weakness,” said Dr. Lyons.


With increasing pain, the signs will become more noticeable. This includes changes in behavior, such as becoming agitated or antisocial, changes in eating, excessive shaking or trembling, and sensitivity to touch. Your dog may eventually avoid normal every-day activities.


“It’s important to learn the subtle signs and get help in the earlier stages,” said Dr. Lyons. “Once you are able to recognize these signs, the quicker you can help your dog to be more comfortable.”


That’s where Dr. Lyons comes in. As a canine physical therapist, she considers herself a “soft tissue and movement specialist.”


Dr. Lyons has been a doctor of physical therapy since 2010, graduating from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Her desire was to help people get back to doing what they love. Over the years, her love of animals influenced her change in career path. In 2017, she began rehabilitating horses and canines and became a certified canine rehabilitation practitioner (CCRP), graduating from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.


“The concepts of physical therapy are the same, except you’re looking at a four-legged client, for the most part,” said Dr. Lyons, who won the annual North of Boston Business Plan Competition in January of this year. Hosted by Salem State’s Enterprise Center, the competition awards $10,000 for first place. Dr. Lyons used her prize money to start Paw Mobility.


Dr. Lyons’ unique approach is home centric. In addition to various tests and measurements to determine causes of pain and musculoskeletal impairments, Dr. Lyons also evaluates the canine’s living environment and daily routine. Inside the home, she notes the types of floors, where any stairs are located, and how and where they play. Outside the home, she notes the landscape and favorite outdoor activities. With this knowledge, Dr. Lyons formulates a plan to help dogs more safely navigate their homes and get back to doing what they love.    


Dr. Lyons’ rehabilitation regimens focus on range of motion exercises, physical modalities, and deep tissue massages. For example, a weight-shifting exercise to improve strength and balance. 


“Like they’re giving a paw but standing, so they have to shift their weight back,” said Dr. Lyons.


If you’re wondering how she gets canines to do these exercises, Dr. Lyons said it’s not as difficult as it may seem. 


“There’s something about dogs, their demeanor, they’re happy, they always want to please,” she said. “You want me to sit? OK, I’ll sit.”


The most common cause of pain Dr. Lyons sees is in the CCL, the cranial cruciate ligament. This important ligament is part of the stifle joint, the canine knee. CCL injuries can occur in young dogs, but they more commonly appear in aging dogs, resulting from degeneration of the ligament.


Whatever the cause, continued pain has the same consequences. Pain changes how a dog moves and can lead to an avoidance of activities. This decreases mobility, increases stiffness, causes muscle wasting, and alters function. Ultimately, chronic pain significantly decreases a dog’s quality of life. Canine physical therapy can be an effective method to helping your four-legged loved one.


“They don’t use words to tell you, but you can just see it,” said Dr. Lyons about the improvements she’s witnessed. “I can help them get off the floor better, get in the car better and go to the beach if that’s where they want to go. That is so rewarding.”

Written by Pamela Marie Cyran