Cues to Pet’s Pain May Be Subtle

Aug 1, 2016 / Pain Management / Cats / Dogs

[pet's pain can be subtle]

pets have varying responses and tolerance levels to pain

Everyone has to deal with pain. Whether from a minor cut or a major surgery, pain is part of life for people and their pets.

“Pain is a very individualized experience,” says Dr. Ashley Mitek, who recently completed a three-year residency in anesthesiology and pain management at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana.

[Dr. Ashley Mitek advises how to recognize and address pet's pain.]

Dr. Ashley Mitek gets a hug from Lulu on the lawn outside the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

“Just like humans, pets experience pain and respond to pain in many different ways. The only difference is that our pets can’t say to us ‘My hip is a little sore. Would you be so kind as to massage it for me?’ ”

Pets typically react differently to acute pain—such as getting hit by a car or having invasive surgery—than to chronic pain. Since the animal has not had time to adjust to this newly uncomfortable and painful feeling, it may often have more aggressive or expressive responses.

“They may vocalize excessively, moan, or thrash around. They also may guard the site of injury to prevent further trauma to it or become aggressive in social interactions,” Dr. Mitek explains.

However, she says, some pets become stoic, reluctant to move, and withdraw from social contact in response to acute pain. By recognizing that there are diverse responses to pain, you will be less likely to overlook a sign of pain that your pet is displaying.

Think of it in human terms. Imagine that four people simultaneously stub their toe on a door. One curses angrily and punches the door. One falls to the floor and grabs his foot. One starts hopping around while crying “Ow! Ow! Ow!” And one winces slightly and simply continues walking.

Watch for Signs of Pet’s Pain

Similarly, pets have varying responses and tolerance levels to pain. You should never assume your pet has a high tolerance for pain; it’s possible he is just really good at hiding it.

Hiding the pain is often seen with chronic pain, such as when a dog has joint pain from osteoarthritis. Dogs tend to conceal this type of pain or deal with it in less expressive ways. Sometimes the only sign that these dogs are in pain is noticing that they have more difficulty going up and down stairs or less agile on walks.

Owners may notice that their dog is limping, but sometimes the limp is so subtle that only a trained veterinarian recognizes it.

Veterinarians knowledgeable about pain management may also recognize an animal’s “pain face.” Dr. Mitek says, “Research has recently shown that many mammals, including human babies, horses, cats, and rabbits, consistently make a species-specific pain face when exposed to pain.” However, it is a topic that needs more research in dogs.

If you suspect something is bothering your pet, a visit to your veterinarian should be your first step.

“Even if you are 99 percent certain you know the cause of your pet’s pain, it is still important to go to your veterinarian for a formal diagnosis,” Dr. Mitek says. “You do not want to accidentally make the situation worse, or let the pain or disease fester, complicating the problem.”

Ways to Address Pet’s Pain

Recognizing the pain and its cause is only half the battle. Your veterinarian will also help with the rest: ways to relieve or manage the pain. There are various pain management strategies that your pet’s doctor might recommend along with, or instead of, prescription drugs.

Dr. Mitek says warm and cool packs can sometimes work for incisional pain, as long as you are careful with the temperatures to avoid thermal burns. For joint or arthritic pain, there are prescription dog foods that may ease joint pain as well as special supportive beds and non-slip floors. Depending on your pet’s condition, adding ramps around the house where the pet would normally jump up and down can also help manage the pain.

Dr. Mitek also heartily recommends a home remedy that works to make both pets and people feel better.

“Once your veterinarian has confirmed a diagnosis and prescribed appropriate treatment therapies, never underestimate the power of simply giving your pet attention,” she says. “A little bit of tender loving care can go a long way.”

By Danielle Engel

Photo by Pete Markham