Living with pain is a fact of life for many of our much-loved pets. Problems such as canine arthritis and hip dysplasia are frequently painful, although the signs of pain in cases such as these may be much less obvious than where an injury such as a broken bone, torn ligament or cut is present. Although pain has a clear beneficial function in the short term, to tell the body that something is wrong, if the pain carries on for a long time then things begin to go wrong. Changes in the way the body sends and interprets pain messages can lead to the development of a chronic pain state which can be very hard to reverse, leaving the patient suffering. Treating pain as early and effectively as possible is important for the patient’s welfare, and the good news is that nowadays there are many more ways to tackle pain in our animal companions. A combination of medicines which act in different ways and alternative therapies such as TENS, acupuncture, massage and hot or cold treatment can all be used to bring welcome relief from the debilitating effects of pain.
Is my pet in pain?
Some of the ways that our pets display pain are not quite what we immediately expect: in fact, pets with chronic problems like arthritis may quite rarely yelp, scream or whine. In particular, cats usually show much more subtle signs. Species like rabbits are very good at hiding pain, because to display pain in the wild would mean that they were singled out by predators as being an easy target.
Signs that might indicate a pet is feeling pain can include:
- Not wanting to eat as much
- Being less willing to exercise and staying in bed more, or lagging behind on walks
- Not grooming as well
- Being bad-tempered towards humans or other pets
- Licking one area a lot
- Limping, stiffness or walking in a different way
- Not wanting to jump up or finding stairs difficult
- Seeking out warmer or cooler places to lie down
- Looking tired or sad
Of course there can be other reasons for these changes, so it is best to get advice from a veterinary surgeon about your particular pet if you notice these signs.
If my pet is injured, won’t it be better if he feels a bit of pain so he rests the injured area better?
This is a common misapprehension. Although it is true that pain might stop a pet from walking on an injured leg in particular, the harmful effects of continued pain are serious, can lead to the pain becoming a disease in its own right, and can teach your pet to adopt changes in his behaviour which are damaging to the rest of the body in the long term. It can be difficult to make sure pets (especially dogs) don’t over-use legs which have problems, but allowing them to be in pain is not an ethical or effective solution. Ways to safely confine the pet, equipment to protect or support the injury, activities to keep him busy mentally and professional advice on what types of exercise is safe and appropriate are much better answers.
What happens at the pain clinic?
The first step for each pet is for vet Rhona to spend time examining your pet from nose to toes to check for signs of pain in different places, because sometimes when pain has been going on a little while, the way your pet has adjusted to cope might have led to other aches and tight muscles elsewhere as a knock-on effect. We will want to discuss with you at length all of your pet’s history and all the things you have noticed about how he or she seems to feel, move and behave, and compare this with how they used to. We might ask you to help with keeping a brief diary, or filling in a checklist at home as you watch and interact with your pet, as well as watching while your pet makes himself at home in our informal environment and investigates the toybox. (Of course, we need to know all about your pet’s previous problems, treatment so far and the medicines he is on or has taken, and for his safety all treatment is by referral from your own vet, who will continue to be responsible for prescribing medicines for your pet.) When we have put together all the information we need about where and why your pet feels pain and how it is affecting him, we will discuss the options with you and create a plan to manage your pet’s pain together. We follow this up at regular intervals to make sure things are going well and your pet is as comfortable as we expect him to be.
Important note for pet owners:
Many of our pet species cannot be given human painkillers because of the harmful effects this can cause. Commonly available medicines like ibuprofen, aspirin and paracetamol can cause life-threatening side effects such as stomach ulcers and liver failure. Never give your pet medicines without specific instructions from your vet, and always make sure your vet knows about any supplements and herbal or homeopathic remedies your pet has taken in case of interactions.