Pets in Pain

“He doesn’t seem like he’s in any pain, so I’m not worried about it.”

I hear that phrase numerous times a week, usually after I broach the topic of a condition that we know is painful. Pain in pets is a concept that’s evolved considerably over the years. There was a time when veterinarians didn’t send home pain medication after surgery. The ‘rational’ justification for that was because “pets don’t feel pain” and “if they’re not in pain, they’ll move around too much after surgery.” It was an incredibly sad state of affairs that I consider a very dark time in our profession.

There are some things we’re certain of. Damage to the body is painful. We can safely assume that surgery is painful. We can safely assume that things like chronic dental disease and arthritis are painful. The human body responds in certain ways to pain. We see these same responses in dogs and cats. Even when we have a pet fully anesthetized, with pain medication on board, we see the heart rate and breathing rate increase when a painful stimulus such as a surgical incision is applied. Pets DO feel pain, there’s no doubt about that.

Identifying pain in animals isn’t always easy. The signs can be subtle. In addition, we expect that as pets age, they’ll slow down some and behave a little differently. The trouble is that those signs overlap the signs of pain in pets. Pets also have some natural instincts to mask the signs of pain (or illness) that we assume are a holdover from needing to survive in the wild. These factors make it a challenge to identify pain.

Some of the common signs of pain are:

-Less activity

-Lack of appetite

-Increased sleeping

-Aggressive behavior or other changes in social behavior

-Limping, hunched back

-Not jumping up/down off the furniture, difficulty with stairs

-Hiding behavior in cats

Some problems in pets that we assume would be painful are more difficult to assess. Dental pain is one such problem. People report severe pain from some dental conditions, but often, pets will continue to crunch up dry food even with severe dental disease being present. I don’t think it’s fair to say that they’re NOT in pain. I believe that the need to eat is such a basic life requirement that pets endure the pain. (Some owners notice that the pet isn’t chewing the food, or won’t chew treats/toys anymore.) Dental pain and arthritis pain are the two things I see most commonly.

Thankfully, we now have far, far more options to help pets that are in pain. We have a very wide variety of medications that are safe, effective, and inexpensive. Some medications are fairly costly ($1-$3 a day), but I would certainly hope that owners would try to find a way to provide for their pet. Conditions like dental disease can be treated directly to decrease pain directly.

I personally deal with chronic pain. I think most everyone at least knows a family member that endures chronic pain as well, be it back pain or arthritis or other injury. Pain utterly changes who you are as an individual. It’s exhausting. The relief of this pain (even if it’s not 100% gone) completely changes the outlook. Relief from the pain restores a remarkable amount of quality to your life.

It’s no different for our pets. They don’t deserve to suffer in silence. If nothing else, if you’ve noticed any of the signs above, or your pet has a condition that you know is painful, ask what can be done to ease that pain.



Filed under behavior, medicine, pain

2 responses to “Pets in Pain

  1. Chris

    Bravo! Great topic to discuss. Of course, animals feel pain; but it’s in their DNA not to show weakness. It’s up to us to *pay attention*. We can’t wait for the vet to figure out something is wrong at the annual exam.
    ~ My horse had to be near death before he’d admit he was sick, and ended up having colic surgery twice. My dog has marked hip dysplasia, but her outward signs of it are very subtle. She has never vocalized pain, but she’s much slower on the stairs and more careful about jumping up on a couch or a bed.
    ~ I’m also a firm believer in joint supplements. My horse got glucosamine, chondroitin, and MSM every day to combat the effects of his arthritis. My dog gets glucosamine, chondroitin, plus Omega 3 and 6 every day. She has shown definite improvement in her ability to move around; thus, I believe her pain is lessened.
    ~ Our animals love us absolutely, and make our lives so much better. We owe it to them to make their lives the best they can be, too 🙂

  2. The supplements you’ve mentioned are some of the best things available for early joint pain in animals. They really can’t hurt (barring the occasional food allergy), and in many cases they help tremendously. As time goes by, we have more and more options for pets. Thanks for offering your experiences with your companions!

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