The Tale of Two Pains

by Cathryn Adolph, LVT, CCRP

When we are in pain, we have the ability to easily communicate and describe it to others.  A dull ache is much different than a sharp, stabbing pain.  We can quantify and label the type of pain or discomfort we feel.  For our pets, we have to use our perceptions to describe their level of pain, but this can be very difficult.  

Perception of Pain

Client A arrives to the office with a young, vibrant dog holding up on of his rear legs.  His owner explains that he feels his dog is not in pain.  Dog A still plays and runs, though he does both activities using only three legs.  The client also explains that the dog does not like to have his sore leg “messed with.”

Client B arrives later than day with an older dog that has a stiff gait.  Her owner notes that her dog is less active overall and doesn’t play with her favorite toys as often.  The client is very worried that her dog is in extreme pain.

Pain versus Discomfort

Both dogs are experiencing some sort of pain.  However, their owner’s perception (or interpretation) of their dog’s pain is very different.  Discomfort is defined as a slight pain, while pain is described as suffering or discomfort caused by illness or injury.  Even though pain and discomfort are used to define each other, we can use these words to describe lameness more accurately.


Dog A may seem like he is not painful due to his activity level however, he is definitely in pain.  This dog’s pain level is significant enough that he cannot or will not use the leg in question.  He is also sensitive to any handling of the limb in question.

Then why is he able to run and play?  Dogs are amazing at compensating and the adrenaline rush when a ball is thrown (assuming the dog likes toys), can make a lot of pain.  Dog A avoids his owners handles touch, especially on the sore leg.  When we injure ourselves, we may also avoid weight bearing until the leg is healed.


Dog B is experiencing discomfort.  Despite this, she is able to functionally use all of her limbs with an altered gait.  Her gait is slower and more of a shuffle because she doesn’t bend her knees or elbows very far.  Describing this dog as uncomfortable or in discomfort, may be more accurate than extremely painful.

In this example, Dog B can be compared to a person with arthritis or low grade back pain.  Both may experience stiffness that they warm out of it.  By altering how they walk, stand, sit, or even lay down the individual can still function in their daily tasks.  However, these individuals (including pets) can have bad days when their normal compensations are not adequate and daily tasks can become difficult.

New Perceptions

By understanding the difference between pain and discomfort, we can help owners define and understand their pet’s level of pain.  Using more accurate terms, we can help Client A understand his dog is in pain and will need help to return to normal function.  While Client B will not lose any more sleep worrying that her dog is in horrible pain.

These are only a couple examples of pain that a pet may experience.  However, they are very common examples that I have seen throughout my veterinary career even before I entered rehabilitation.

Please note, the photos used in today’s blog do not reflect the examples used in today’s post.