Behaviour Therapy

Pain and Behaviour

It is a fact that pain affects behaviour. 

The relationship between behavioural issues and pain can be classified into four main categories:

  1. the presenting complaint is a direct manifestation of pain;
  2. unidentified pain is underpinning secondary concerns within the initial behaviour problem;
  3. there is a worsening of one or more signs of problem behaviour as a result of pain; or
  4. adjunctive behavioural signs are associated with pain.

Pain lowers the thresholds for aggression and tolerance of handling; as the animal attempts to avoid potentially painful contact. Owners will also often report their pets wanting to spend more time on their own and withdrawing from family life.  Pain alters mobility, which may present as a dog no longer wanting to go for walks, or a dog with no interest in play. Owners may also report their dog appearing depressed, anxious and stressed, or more easily “spooked”.

Whilst dogs will vocalise with acute pain, they will often adjust to living with chronic pain.  Just because a dog is not crying out does not mean that they are not in pain. 

Chronic pain can lead to:

  • sleep disturbance
  • irritability/aggression
  • fear/anxiety
  • decreased appetite
  • depression/lethargy
  • social withdrawal
  • reluctance to move from bed, go for walks, exercise, no interest in play
  • resource guarding
  • attention-seeking, or “clinginess”/comfort-seeking behaviours
  • inappropriate toileting, house-soiling
  • destructiveness
  • compulsive type behaviours, such as ‘fly snapping, ‘star gazing’ and compulsive licking
  • decreased pain threshold

The behaviours listed above are not exhaustive but are examples of behaviours often associated with musculoskeletal, gastrointestinal, dermatological and urinary tract conditions.

Recognition of pain is a complex area; it involves recognising the covert and overt signs of pain.  It can present without any overt signs of illness and thus may appear to be a behaviour problem.  Canine behaviourists will always ask for a vet check before undertaking behaviour modification precisely because of the intrinsic link between pain and behaviour. In some cases, pain is not the initial cause of the behaviour but will almost certainly exacerbate it. The pain aspect must be managed first.

Pain can shape behaviours, leading to learned patterns that may remain even after the source of pain has been addressed. This is when the canine behaviourist can step in to design a tailored behaviour modification programme, working in conjunction with the animal’s vet and rehab team as part of a multi-disciplinary team. There has to be a holistic approach when dealing with behavioural issues to accurately identify the cause of the behaviour and correctly address it. In many behavioural cases, pain management will form a vital part of the solution.