Okaw Veterinary Clinic LLC

140 West Sale Street
Tuscola, IL 61953



When Pain Looks Like Fear


lab photoThis morning I was reminded by my own dog of how the body language of pain is very similar to the body language of fear. My own dog, Bella was walking slowly towards me as she got off her bed to go outside. Recently I diagnosed spondylosis, a bridging of bone between the vertebra in her lower back, and had started her on pain relief medication which was helping be her happy active self. We had gone on a hike yesterday, and she had a great time. 

Bella is a dog who will be timid about a lot of new things or sounds. She is far less anxious than she ever was before but it is her nature to be wary at times.  So when she first woke up and had her head and tail down my thought was - "what is bothering you? Everything is the same at home." then I realized that she missed one of her pain medications the day before.  I quickly got her the dose and she was feeling better about an hour later. 

Her tail down, head down and slow to approach is the body language of both fear and pain. My head went first to fear - since that is what I am accustomed to thinking about my dog.  And like many an owner I was perplexed - what is scaring you? There was nothing different. Fortunately I thought about pain - because the signs of pain in a dog are head down, tail down and moving slowly. When I checked her medication supply I realized her dose had been missed and that combined with the hike she was flaring up in pain. She was an excellent example of how both pain and anxiety show the same body language signs. Perhaps she was feeling a bit anxious about being touched or petted due to some back pain - it is hard to ask a dog. The good news is addressing her pain also addressed the anxiety.

When I speak to veterinarians and technicians about pain and anxiety I stress that it may not be clear which is the primary problem. Not all painful problems will show the bony changes of arthritis - but the pain is there. The good news is giving pain relief will reduce anxiety. Sometimes this is the direct benefit of a particular pain reliever such as Gabapentin. At other times is it the reduced fear of being touched while in pain that is helping. When pain is triggering anxiety, pain medication will decrease that fear quickly. Unlike other anti anxiety medications that may take weeks to show response, pain meds will show the benefit for both behavior and physical well-being within the first few doses.

If you have a dog or cat over the age of 7 who is acting fearful, or changing in behavior pain may be part of the problem. Not overt high level pain, but low level chronic pain. Be sure to tell your veterinarian about any changes in your pet's attitude and actions, including any increased fear of noises or petting.

You can find more information about aging pets and behavior at our website.


 - written by Dr. Sally J. Foote

Okaw Veterinary Clinic
140 W. Sale
Tuscola, IL 61953
(217) 253-3221


Mon & Fri 8 am - 6 pm
Tues & Wed 8 am - 5 pm
Sat 8 am - noon
Closed Thurs & Sun

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