I am throwing out articles about euthanasia, and now pain in December? What kind of holiday spirit is this? The truth is that talking about pain warms my heart for one reason — I can do a lot to help it. Pain is sorely (see what I did there?) underdiagnosed in our pets because they aren’t whiny enough. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve heard that a pet is limping, but not painful. If your pet is limping it is BECAUSE they are painful.
Often during a physical exam, I will find an area of a pet that is painful which owners were not even aware of. However, when we talk about changes at home, owners have noticed things that may actually be related to pain. Reluctance to jump or go on walks, snapping in certain situations and other changes can be due to pain. The important thing to know is that if your pet is limping at any point, that is due to pain. I promise. Once we figure out a treatment plan that works, we can return pets to comfort and people are always surprised at how lively and happy they are.
I am not telling you this to sell you drugs or because the pharmaceutical companies bought me yachts. Plenty of you aren’t my clients and I don’t even have a kayak. I am telling you this because I know what chronic pain feels like, and I know how much it can affect your daily life. If you have ever had an ongoing injury or chronic pain, you know that it isn’t an occasional thing, it touches many aspects of life.
If your animal has a severe and acute injury (like a broken leg), you will certainly know that they are hurt. However, there are many types of pain that don’t show up as quickly. Think of a sore knee that you don’t think to see a doctor about, but you find that you are taking aspirin every day. Our animals do not have the benefit of knowing how much pain is too much, and often will try to hide the pain completely until it is severe. They will literally just “limp” through things. A lot of this is leftover instinct to survive, and cats are especially adept at keeping their pain a secret.
As our pets age, they also get osteoarthritis. It is estimated that about 20% of pets start developing arthritis, and it may begin as early as one year of age! Extremely active lifestyles (such as frisbee, agility or intense fetch), injuries and the natural conformation of your pet can all hasten this. Back pain is extremely common and does not lead to limping in the same way that a hurt leg can, so can be harder for owners to detect.
Pain in cats commonly presents as not wanting to go to the litter box, constipation, and less jumping up to high places. As back pain progresses, posturing to go to the bathroom becomes painful, so many cats try to go less (which can also lead to eating and drinking less). They may also associate this pain with the litter box, since that is when they feel it the most, and start avoiding the litter box completely. You’ll notice this for sure.
Pain in dogs is also commonly very slow to catch the owner’s attention. Dogs will accommodate their lifestyle much in the way that people do, so you may not notice a sudden change. However, chronic pain does take a serious toll on our pets. I will see dogs limping that owners don’t think to have any pain, because they still want to walk or play. I still snowboard, but it doesn’t mean it doesn’t increase my pain. However, this is a choice I make, while our pets don’t get those choices. It is our job to look out for their best interest, which may not mean cutting out fetch, but finding ways to make it hurt less.
When we do find pain on a physical exam that is limiting a pet, there are options to improve their lifestyle. For dogs, there are many types of medications that help ease the pain. There are also treatments like acupuncture and cold laser for all types of animals that can help pain with less of an effect on organs. Losing weight and improving gentle activity can be very beneficial as well.
One of the most common things that we hear after finding and treating pain in pets is that they return to doing things the owners forgot about! Our pets can be so good at adapting their lifestyles that we may not even notice they stopped doing activities they once loved.
It is VERY important to never, ever try to treat any type of pain in your pet without consulting your veterinarian. Many human medications are extremely toxic to pets; they cannot take Tylenol, Advil, Motrin or Aleve and others without the risk of fatal effects.
There are injuries in our pets that can be self-resolving, like a sprain. However, your veterinarian is trained to assess injuries and know when further examination is needed. A torn cruciate, broken leg, Lyme disease or ripped toenail may all cause your pet to act the same way.
The most important thing to remember about pain in animals is that even though they may not show signs, they do feel pain in the same way that we do. Chronic pain decreases our pets’ quality of life and makes it difficult for them to enjoy their daily activities. This is part of why subtle changes can mean big things.
Don’t worry, there are many ways to treat pain to help your pet live a more comfortable life. And also don’t worry, my weight loss article is coming! I just wanted to give everyone a break this week while you finish up your Christmas cookies and holiday pudding.