One of my favorite things in my job is the ability to alleviate pain in our pets. While our pets seem very far from their wild counterparts, they still hold on to a few adaptations. One of these is the ability to hide their pain. While most of our pets would be lost without an owner putting food in their bowl every day, they have maintained the instinct to hide pain which would make them an easier target for predators.
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 often 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. 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.
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.
As our pets age, they also get osteoarthritis. It is estimated that about twenty percent 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. This is something you will notice!
Pain in dogs is also commonly very slow to catch owners’ attention. Dogs will accommodate their lifestyle much in the way that people do, so that 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 have any pain because they still want to walk or play. If your pet is limping it is in pain. With the exception of a few structural abnormalities, limping always means pain somewhere.
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 which 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. Know that any change in your pet can be very significant.
Above all, know that acute and chronic pain can both be effectively treated so your pet can get back more quality of life, even as they reach their senior years.