I am often asked by worried families of sick pets, "Is my pet in pain?" This question comes from the heart. The last thing any of us wants to ignore is the pain and suffering of an animal. Of course, our pets can't speak to us, and they are counting on us to notice if they are sick, injured, or hurting. I wish they could report a level on the pain score system and we would know just how much they hurt and where the pain originates. That's where you and your veterinarian come in. We have to work together on this one.
Pain can begin suddenly (acute pain), or can be ongoing (chronic pain). Acute pain is usually sharper and more intense in nature. It's the pain that occurs due to injury, or with certain diseases that come on quickly. We tend to notice acute pain. We may see limping, stiffness, or hear our pet yelp. Acute pain is usually easy to recognize. Chronic pain is dull, aching, or throbbing pain. It's the pain we learn to live with day-to-day. Chronic pain can be caused by joint diseases, such as arthritis, slowly progressive illness, etc. Animals will adapt to this pain. Chronic pain can be difficult to see.
Because animals hide symptoms of chronic pain, pet owners are often surprised when their veterinarian observes pain in their pet. For instance, many of my clients are surprised to learn their dog or cat with dental disease is in tremendous pain. They are still eating, they are not whining, they don't appear to be painful. That's right. Animals are tough! Their instincts are to mask pain and illness and to survive regardless of disease or injury. They don't know they have the option to call their doctor, set up an appointment, and get relief. So, they don't bother complaining about pain.
Subtle signs of pain we may recognize in our pets include spending more time away from the family, hiding, choosing the floor instead of jumping onto the couch, a decreased desire to go outside or play, sleeping late or reluctance to get out of bed, grumpiness, urinary or fecal accidents, failure to use the litterbox, etc. Watching for these signs and intervening early on can make a huge difference in the course of your animal's life. We can potentially find and fix the cause of pain to stop it completely, but we will likely at least be able to slow down the progression of the cause for pain and make your pet feel better.
The best action we can take to prevent pain in our pets is to prevent health conditions that are painful to the best of our ability. We can prevent dental infection; we can prevent obesity that leads to joint and back pain, etc. Of course, there are genetic tendencies and age-related conditions that result in pain we cannot eliminate, but even in those situations, early intervention measures are the key to comfort and longevity.
Screening your pet for pain requires a thorough physical exam and a detailed description of any changes or concerns you notice at home. We may recommend X-rays or lab testing. These tests help us identify the cause of pain, evaluate the degree of disease, determine which medications are most appropriate, and which medications we should avoid. We may ask that your pet return for a follow-up evaluation to measure the response to treatment and make adjustments where needed.
The take-home message is that animals feel pain just as we do. The fact that they cannot show it doesn't mean they hurt less. Preventing animal suffering is an important part of our veterinary oath. We take pain management seriously. There are options for your pet. We can safely and effectively help. Please let us make a difference for your pet.