The Emotional Experience of Pain

Andy receiving acupuncture

Eliminating or reducing pain is one of the most under-recognized opportunities to improve your dog’s quality of life. Emotional and physical pain play a significant role in functional mobility and every movement decisions your dog makes. Pain is a highly personal experience. It’s based on an emotional history such as remembering previous events of pain and fear as well as physical elements such as current diseases and genetic makeup.  Yes, there’s usually a physical insult to the body like a cut or cancer, but the experience of pain is rooted in the mind. The emotional processing of the physical pain makes it very real for your dog. 

My clients often mention that their dog has changed, that her happy-go-lucky demeanor has diminished or even disappeared. She’s not as likely to follow them around the house or yard, or she stays in one spot more often and watches, rather than joining in the activity. Chronic pain has its emotional consequences, taking a toll in the areas of energy, activity, sleep, and mood.


Chronic pain can be exhausting. Think about the last time you had long-lasting pain, even for a few days or weeks. The pain was always present in the back or front of your mind, informing your movement decisions. You couldn’t get away from pain; it followed you like your shadow.

Chronic pain drains your dog’s energy and makes activities—changing positions, moving from place to place, participating in social interactions with other animals, engaging with their humans—all seem arduous.


Both pain and lack of energy dampen her enthusiasm for physical activity. Going for a walk or sniffing around the backyard lose their appeal. In many cases, the resulting lack of exercise exacerbates the pain. It’s so easy to let her stay in what you think is a comfortable position and not ask her to get up and move with you. But this is often more about you as a caregiver not wanting to “cause” her pain by making her move.

One of the hardest lessons to learn is that hurt does not equal harm. She might be stiff or have discomfort, but without exercise, her pain will increase over time.


All sleep is not created equal. It can be restful and rejuvenating or fitful and restless. Dogs with chronic pain often change sleeping positions or locations multiple times through the night, interrupting their sleep cycles. Her sleep patterns also may be disrupted by emotional pain such as fear or anxiety.

Dogs use play, social interactions, human engagement, exercise, and other activities to process their world and burn mental energy. Without quality sleep, her pain gets worse and her energy diminishes.


Your dog’s mood isn’t tied to a single event; it’s a collection of inputs. Her physiology, including nutrition, exercise, and pain level, as well as her mental state, where she focuses her attention and her current emotions, play a significant role in her mood. Environmental elements such as lighting, people, and animals around her also affect how she experiences her world.

Chronic pain and the limits it puts on her life can lead to depression, anxiety, anger, and frustration—all making pain far more difficult to deal with. She doesn’t feel like interacting with others or exercising, both of which would elevate her mood and reduce the pain. Breaking through that mood fog is a challenge—perhaps one you’ve felt yourself. It’s not much different for your dog.

Fear is one of your dog’s most primitive emotions. Its role is to protect her from injury and discomfort and help inform her perception of what is safe and what is not — in this case it’s movement that may not be safe. Recalling previous slips, stumbles, falls, and their associated pain creates fear and doubt. Therefore, the most important thing you can do to reduce your dog’s fear is manage her pain.

If you expect your dog to increase her engagement with her world, a well-thought-out pain control program is an absolute requirement. Remember, whether it’s acute or chronic, pain is a limiting factor. If pain exists, work with your veterinarian to eliminate or significantly reduce. That will increase her ability to lead a fuller, more curious life.


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