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Assessing Pain in Our Pets

Two factors, in particular, make it considerably difficult for us to recognize when our pets are in pain.

The first is that our cats and dogs are very stoic creatures. It is the instinct of these animals to minimize and mask their pain as much as possible. Centuries ago, as prey, they did not want predators to recognize their weakness. We can only presume that today, as pets, those instincts still linger.

The second is that our pets do not speak English. Or any known human language, for that matter! Wouldn’t our duty as caregivers be so much easier if they could tell us where they hurt, and to what degree?

The reality is that we must use every tool at our disposable to recognize pain and practice effective pain management in our cats and dogs.

As veterinary professionals, we have learned that animals unknowingly reveal their pain in numerous ways. The following are some examples of changes in your pet that may indicate the presence of pain.

  • Hunched posture
  • Hiding behaviour
  • Reluctance to be held, pet, or picked up
  • Panting/open-mouthed breathing while at rest
  • Unusual vocalization
  • Restlessness
  • Uncharacteristic aggression

While these symptoms and behaviours do not guarantee the presence of pain, they should be taken seriously when observed on their own, or in any combination with one another.

Once pain is recognized by owners and confirmed by veterinary professionals, we can take action to implement pain management to the best of our abilities. Management may occur in various forms. The following are some examples of pain and common treatments.

1) Pain caused by obesity.
Your pet may experience pain caused by undue stress on their joints as a result of excess weight. Weight loss plans may be implemented to help reduce the amount of weight on your pet, and therefore minimize the stress on their extremities. It may require changing your pet’s diet and/or reducing the quantity of food being offered.

2) Chronic pain.
Pain caused by arthritis, pancreatitis, inflammatory bowel disease, cystitis, or any number of medical conditions may benefit from long term anti-inflammatory medications or other medical management as prescribed by your veterinarian.

3) Acute pain.
While your pet recovers from surgery or heals from an injury, they may experience acute pain. There are various ways to reduce this pain, including prescribed medications or the use of cold or warm compresses to reduce inflammation. Acute pain can be resolved with proper care.

4) Wind-up pain.
When developing an understanding of pain in our pets, it is important to have an understanding of wind-up pain. If pain is treated before it becomes excessive, it is much more manageable. If we wait to treat the pain until after it has been present for any significant length of time, it can be much more resistant to treatment. More specifically, pain receptors are more susceptible to pain management before they become bombarded with said pain. It is for this reason that we often provide pre-operative and intra-operative pain management. This way, our pets are treated for pain before they even get a chance to feel it in its entirety.

You should always feel able to reach out to your veterinary staff without hesitation when you believe your pet to be in any degree of pain. You might feel the necessity to act quickly to help manage the pain. You may hope to do this by administering a new medication, an over the counter medication, or an alternate dose or frequency of an existing medication. Kindly resist the temptation! It is highly inadvisable to attempt to medicate your pet without the advice of a professional.

Together as owners, family members, and veterinary staff, there are lots of ways to provide our precious pets with some pain relief. And even though they can’t speak to us, they will thank us immensely!

If you have any questions regarding your pet and their pain, please give us a call to make an appointment.

Written by: Shelby Walsh, RVT

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