Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Pain Management Key to a Speedy Recovery

Pet Column for the week of October 2, 2000

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
By Carrie Gustavson
Information Specialist

Since the animal patients can't directly communicate what they feel, in veterinary medicine pain prevention and control is especially important. "This is a case where some degree of anthropomorphism is appropriate and desirable," says Dr. John Benson, veterinary anesthesiologist at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana. "If a stimulus or a procedure would be painful to a person, it must be considered to be painful to an animal."

"Pain is a perception," says Dr. Benson. "It is an individual and emotional response." In animals, pain is usually expressed as fearfulness, hyperactivity, or aggression. But animals can also suffer, or internalize their pain. The stoic nature of animals lends itself to suffering -- we often don't realize an animal is in pain until a disease or an injury is quite serious.

Pain can be protective -- when you touch a hot kettle the reflexive withdrawal of your hand occurs to prevent you from badly burning yourself. Animals are wired much the same way we are. They have the same protective reflexes and like us, painful stimuli leave a lasting impression -- it's called learned avoidance. It's the reason you are more careful the next time. And animals learn to avoid things that will hurt in the same way we do -- just try trimming your dog's toe nails after you've hit the quick just once.

But while pain can be important in day-to-day life, if chronic or extreme it can also be harmful, especially when optimal healing is desired. "Pain increases stress, and stress causes metabolic changes in the body that are incompatible with healing," says Dr. Benson. "Animals will heal better if we treat their pain."

When an animal has surgery or experiences any trauma, tissue damage occurs. Damaged tissue releases substances that make nerve endings become extra sensitive, so that the pain threshold is much lower than normal. It is like having a bad sunburn. Suddenly the slightest touch feels excruciatingly painful because the nerve fibers are so out of whack -- even the slightest stimulus is perceived as pain.

This means that animals who get what veterinarians call "preemptive analgesia," for example, pain medication before surgery, have a better chance for a speedy, less painful recovery. "Just as antibiotics are used prophylactically to prevent infection, it is appropriate to give analgesics to prevent pain where it is likely to occur," says Dr. Benson.

Dr. Benson believes that some of the commonly stated reasons for withholding analgesia, for instance, because pain relief would allow increased activity levels leading to self-injury, need to be carefully examined. "It is better to treat the pain and prevent activity in other ways -- splinting, bandaging, and confinement, for example. Uncontrolled pain will likely result in more injury," says Dr. Benson. "Animals should not have to endure pain because of something a real or imagined that may follow pain relief."

There are many options for pain control in animals. Be sure to discuss pain management with your veterinarian.