You may have noticed that your dog keeps stretching his neck and looking up. It’s a little strange, isn’t it? In fact, it makes us naturally question whether this is normal behaviour. Could it indicate pain, or that something is up? Do we need to do anything about it? Well, here are the answers to all of these questions and more.
So, why does my dog keep stretching his neck and looking up? A dog may keep stretching his neck and looking up to relieve pain from his abdomen or throat, which can be a medical emergency. Other times he may be stretching compulsively as a way to relieve stress or boredom. Alternatively, he may just like how it feels.
As you can see, how concerned you need to be here will range. And quite dramatically.
So, let’s delve into those causes in greater detail so that you can try to identify why your dog is doing it.
Then we will look at what an appropriate response is, following that.
Why Does A Dog Keep Stretching His Neck And Looking Up?
There are many situations in which your dog might keep stretching his neck and looking up. Sometimes he does this for emotional reasons, and other times it’s a sign of a serious (or even urgent) health problem.
Your Dog May Have Difficulty Swallowing (Dysphagia)
Sometimes your dog can stretch his neck and look up if he’s having trouble swallowing to try and ease pain in his esophagus.
Trouble swallowing – or dysphagia – usually happens when fluids or food gets trapped in your dog’s throat.
Tumors or lesions can also be at fault, causing pain when your dog tries to swallow.
In addition to stretching his neck, signs that your dog is experiencing pain in his esophagus include:
- Throwing up food after he eats
- Stored food in his cheeks
- Aspiration (sometimes leading to pneumonia)
- Having trouble getting food down his throat
- Change in appetite – either avoiding food or a sudden, ravenous appetite
Dysphagia can be serious or mild, depending on what’s causing it, and it can affect the mouth and jaw or the throat.
Causes of dysphagia in the throat that may cause your dog to stretch his neck include:
- A foreign object stuck in his esophagus or pharynx
- Enlarged lymph nodes (or an abscess on the nodes)
- A tumor
- Esophageal stricture (the esophageal muscles narrow because of inflammation)
- An infection (like toxoplasma or neospora)
- Tick paralysis or botulism
- A congenital abnormality of the esophagus (usually present at birth but can come into play at a later age in some dogs)
- A degenerative muscle or nerve disease
No matter the cause, given your dog is having difficulty swallowing, it’s essential to get him to the vet.
Your Dog May Have A Chest Injury
If you don’t think there’s a digestive problem (see below), it could be your dog has a chest injury.
A dog who has suffered a blow to his lungs or heart may find his breathing is impacted. If it’s painful to inhale, he may stretch his neck to ease that pain.
Signs that your dog may have a chest injury include:
- Changes in his breathing. If his breath is faster than usual or more labored, perhaps his chest hurts. Likewise, if his breathing is shallower than normal, he may be finding it painful to breathe.
- Recovering from a fall or an accident. Obviously, if your dog has just fallen or has suffered another type of accident, he may have hurt his chest.
- Bleeding from the chest area. Once again, this is a clear sign that something is wrong, but there could be internal damage, too.
Seek veterinary assistance immediately if you suspect your dog has a chest injury.
On your way to the vet, be sure to keep your dog warm and calm to avoid shock. Shock in dogs can be fatal.
Your Dog May Have Stomach or Digestion Problems (Including Bloat)
Dogs will sometimes stretch out their necks when they’re suffering from stomach or other digestion problems.
By stretching their necks, they are instinctively attempting to relieve pressure from their stomachs by stretching their abdominal muscles away from their internal organs.
Canine Bloat (GDV)
Sometimes dogs can get canine bloat (also known as gastric dilatation-volvulus, or GDV).
Bloat makes your dog’s stomach look distended, and is when gas gets trapped in his digestive tract.
As air builds up in your dog’s stomach, it twists, trapping the gas.
The building pressure stops blood from returning to the heart from the abdomen and hind legs. Blood pools at the back end of your dog’s body, sending him into shock.
As the stomach flips, it carries the pancreas and spleen, stopping the blood flow.
The pancreas, starved of blood, produces toxic hormones, one of which targets the heart and stops it instantly.
Sadly, even with treatment, about 30% of dogs who get bloat die from this disease. Prevention is crucial (see below).
Triggers For Bloat
Bloat can be triggered by:
- Drinking too much or too fast
- Eating too much or too fast
- Old age
- Swallowing something they shouldn’t
Common Symptoms of Bloat
Canine bloat is a medical emergency, so it’s worth knowing the common symptoms, such as:
- Excessive saliva
- A swollen abdomen
- A stomach that’s painful to the touch
- An abdomen that feels warm to the touch
- Gurgling noises in their stomach
- Pacing, general restlessness
- Decreased appetite
- An overall look of distress
- Retching or vomiting
Call your vet urgently if you suspect bloat for emergency treatment (see below).
Your Dog May Have Pancreatitis
Signs of Pancreatitis
You may not know for sure if your dog has pancreatitis, but neck stretching is one of the first tell-tale signs.
Pancreatitis is when an inflamed pancreas starts to digest itself, causing your dog extreme pain.
Your dog tries to relieve this pain by stretching his neck and abdominal muscles away from the pancreas.
Pancreatitis is easily confused with bloat or less serious stomach problems (see symptoms of bloat above). However, here are some distinguishing factors:
- Check your dog’s temperature. If your dog seems feverish or weak, it could be pancreatitis
- See if your dog hunches over. In addition to stretching his neck, if your dog tends to hunch over while standing and his abdomen looks swollen (like with bloat), he could have pancreatitis
- Check his stool. Diarrhea is a common symptom of pancreatitis, when combined with other signs
- Look for the ‘praying position.’ This is when a dog will stick his rear end up in the air with his head and front legs lowered onto the floor. This position is another way of trying to ease the pain he’s feeling
Get your dog to the vet as a matter of urgency if you notice these symptoms.
Pancreatitis requires medical help – as your dog gets worse and is in more pain, he may vomit up blood.
Causes of Pancreatitis
Pancreatitis is caused by a variety of things – with a poor diet (including fatty table scraps) being top of the list:
- A high-fat diet (there are more causes of pancreatitis around Thanksgiving and Christmas due to dogs eating fatty ‘treats’ from their humans)
- A poor diet overall
- Endocrine disease (such as hypothyroidism)
- Diabetes mellitus
- Some medications (or other toxins). These include azathioprine, calcium, cholinesterase inhibitors, phenobarbital, potassium bromide, vinca alkaloids, salicylates, l-asparaginase, and estrogen
- Severe blunt trauma
- A genetic predisposition (some of the toy and other smaller dog breeds have been shown to have a higher risk of pancreatitis)
Your Dog May Be Acting Compulsively
Some dogs seem to stretch their necks as part of a compulsive behavior that is usually for harmless reasons.
A common example is ‘star gazing’ which, for some dogs, can help soothe anxiety or other cognitive issues.
Dogs communicate certain emotions (mainly boredom and stress) through obsessive motions, so if you see your dog doing this, start by addressing the stress or boredom.
Usually, the compulsive behavior will then take care of itself.
Give your dog plenty of mental and physical exercise, as well as love and affection, and he should stop of his own accord.
If you have any concerns about your dog’s obsessive stretching, though, it’s always a good idea to contact your vet.
Your Dog Likes The Sensation
Of course, there is always the possibility that your dog just likes the sensation.
They have learned that they like the feel of a good stretch.
This would be the best potential reason for this behavior, as it’s not a cause for concern nor is there anything you will need to do (if you can confirm this is the reason behind it).
How Do I Tell if My Dog Is In Pain?
It can be hard to tell if your dog is in pain, particularly since their instinct as descendants of wild animals is to hide any weakness. There are, though, some tell-tale signs to look out for.
Here are some common signs your dog is in pain:
- Grumpy behavior (growling, resource guarding, etc.)
- Excessive pawing, licking or scratching at a certain area of his body
- Flattened ears
- Not wanting to play
- Loss of appetite
- Stiffness after resting
- Low or hunched overall posture
- Not wanting to exercise
- Moving to avoid being touched
- Warmth, redness, or swelling of a particular area
- Increased heart rate
- Increased breathing rate
- Difficulties breathing or walking
Because our dogs can’t tell us when they’re in pain, it’s up to us to be vigilant and take action quickly if we suspect they are suffering.
What To Do About Your Dog Stretching Their Neck and Looking Up
What to do about your dog stretching his neck and looking up depends upon the cause (if you are able to identify it). If your dog is acting compulsively, you can usually address this yourself (see above). Otherwise, veterinary attention is usually required – and often urgently.
If You Think Your Dog Has A Chest Injury
Upon arrival at the vet, your dog will be examined to determine the cause of the injury (if you don’t know this yourself) and the extent of the damage.
Chest trauma can be difficult to manage, and helping your dog to breathe while maintaining his normal heart rate is critical.
Your vet may also offer:
- Pain medications, steroids, and possibly a chest tube
- Extra oxygen
- IV (intravenous) fluids (these help treat shock as well as stabilize blood pressure)
- Additional heart medications, if required
- Emergency surgery (with blood transfusions for severe chest trauma cases)
Once you get home, your vet will probably ask you to:
- Help your dog rest and heal (reducing physical activity)
- Watch for any further breathing difficulties
- Keep an eye on your dog’s appetite and energy levels
- Be mindful if you suspect your dog is still weak or is in pain
Your vet will want to schedule a follow-up appointment. In the meantime, if you see any signs your dog is not healing properly, do not hesitate to call your vet.
If You Suspect Difficulty Swallowing (Dysphagia)
Once you get your dog to the vet, they will carry out a thorough examination to determine the cause.
What your vet does depends on what they find:
- Foreign bodies. If your dog has swallowed a foreign object that has gotten stuck, your vet will be able to remove it safely (do not try and do this yourself, as you risk causing further damage to the sensitive tissue there). Surgery may be required
- A structural problem with the esophagus. Surgery may be required here, too, which may or may not be minor. Your dog will most likely need a special diet afterward
- Aspiration pneumonia. Aspiration pneumonia requires immediate treatment: your dog may require antibiotics, additional oxygen, and fluids. He may need several days’ stay in the veterinary hospital
- Infections. Infections and inflammations can often be treated with medication such as antibiotics
- Muscular or neurological conditions. These can also often be treated with medication
- A degenerative condition. Depending on the seriousness of the condition, your dog may sadly eventually need to be euthanized
If You Suspect Bloat
If you suspect bloat, get your dog to the vet quickly. A dog can die within 1 to 2 hours of contracting bloat, so your vet has very little time to help.
Your vet will:
- Treat the shock, if required
- Bring your dog to surgery, deflating the stomach and returning it to its position
- Remove any damaged bits of the stomach wall
- Attach the stomach to the abdominal wall (called a gastropexy) to prevent a recurrence (which happens in up to 90 percent of cases)
If You Suspect Pancreatitis
Pancreatitis is another medical emergency that requires veterinary intervention.
Your vet will:
- Manage your dog’s pain first, perhaps with intravenous fluid therapy
- Provide antiemetic medication for vomiting (to prevent dehydration)
- Withhold food and water for 24 hours to enable your dog’s pancreas to rest
You will be given a management plan to carry out at home, such as:
- Careful monitoring of your dog’s fat intake (no table scraps, no matter how much he begs!)
- A prescription diet that is low or ultra-low in fat and supports your dog’s gastrointestinal system
- Feeding your dog more frequent and smaller meals rather than fewer large meals
- Regular follow-up appointments for your vet to check your dog’s levels of lipase and amylase
Note: There are internet sites that offer home treatment for pancreatitis, but this disease requires veterinary treatment. No home remedies are a substitute for treating your dog’s severe pain and putting a stop to his pancreas digesting itself!
Further Home Support
While pancreatitis can’t be treated at home, and there is no sure way to prevent a recurrence, there are some supplements worth asking your vet about:
- Digestive enzyme supplements containing pancreatin. These can help some (but not all) dogs. These supplements inhibit pancreatic secretion and reduce the work of the pancreas, and they are available both on a prescription and over the counter.
- Fish oil. Although fish oil is high in fat, it can help lower blood lipid levels, and vitamin E is recommended as an additional supplement.
As with any supplement, though, it’s essential to consult with your vet first before administering one to your dog.
Dogs stretch their necks and look up for a reason.
None of them are particularly positive.
Though, what your dog is experiencing and what they may be going through can vary – from dog to dog, context to context.
Perhaps it’s clear and obvious to you by now, but if you are still unsure, do contact a vet.
Besides, it could be a medical emergency. And if it were to be, time is of the essence.
Don’t take any risks here.
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I am an experienced pet owner with decades of experience owning a number of different pets, from traditional pets like dogs and cats, to the more exotic like reptiles and rodents. I currently own a Cockapoo (pictured) called Bailey. I am also the main writer and chief editor here at Pet Educate; a site dedicated to sharing evidence-based insights and guidance, based on my vast pet ownership knowledge, experience, and extensive research.