Our pets can’t tell us when they’re in pain – we have to notice the signs. If your puppy steps on a thorn and starts limping, it can be fairly obvious that his foot hurts. But often animals instinctively mask injury and illness to protect themselves from predators, so it can be challenging to detect when they’re in pain. To help veterinarians provide excellent care and educate pet owners about how to recognize when their pets are in pain and what to do, the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) and the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) worked together in 2007 to create the AAHA/AAFP Pain Management Guidelines for Dogs and Cats.
Unexpected and easily overlooked sources of pain
Recognizing when your pet is in pain and quickly seeking treatment not only helps alleviate your pet’s suffering, but strengthens the bond between the two of you. Even subtle changes in your pet’s behavior are reasons to contact your veterinarian because these are the first signs of illness and pain. Sometimes these symptoms can be easily overlooked, particularly in cats. Often, for example, arthritis is attributed to “old age” in cats, rather than pain. Similarly, a cat that urinates inappropriately may have a painful lower urinary tract disease rather than a behavior issue.
Signs of pain
Because cats and dogs tend to hide pain as a protective mechanism, pet owners need to be aware of signs that their pet is in pain. General signs include a change in normal behavior, such as decreased activity, lethargy, decreased appetite, and in the case of cats, decreased grooming. Abnormal behavior such as inappropriate elimination, vocalization, aggression, or decreased interaction with other pets and family members, altered facial expression, altered posture, restlessness, and in the case of cats, hiding can also be expressions of pain. Another sign to look for is how your pet reacts to being touched – if they have increased body tension or flinch in response to a gentle touch in an injured area, it’s time to seek help. Finally, elevations in their heart rate, increased breathing, higher body temperature and blood pressure, or dilated pupils are other pain indicators. In all cases, see your veterinarian to discuss your concerns.
The importance of prevention
By taking steps to reduce the potential for painful conditions in the future, you’ll help your pet avoid unnecessary problems in the future. For example, providing lifelong dental care reduces the development of oral pain, and preventing obesity reduces the incidence and severity of osteoarthritis. Good nutrition and exercise combined with regular wellness checks at your veterinary clinic will go a long way to helping your pet have minimal pain and a healthy life.
Treating your pet’s pain will depend on the source. Once the source of the pain has been determined, surgery may be necessary for acute pain. Because fear and anxiety can amplify pain, and physical restraint can contribute to pain, do your best to keep your pet calm. Often animals in pain can be temporarily distracted and calmed by interaction or handling.
If your pet suffers from chronic pain, many basic lifestyle changes can reduce their pain. For example, controlled exercise and weight management are used to decrease joint stress and improve muscular support of the joints. Easy access to litter boxes (no hood, ramp or stairs, and a low-entry side), soft bedding, raised food and water dishes, nonslip floor surfaces (especially in the food and litter areas), baby gates to prevent access to the stairs, modified access to the outdoors (particularly in hot or cold weather), and appropriate warm-ups prior to exercise may all contribute to pain alleviation. Now there are also more options for pain management, so talk to your veterinarian about your options. Perhaps most importantly, positive and consistent interaction with your pet can improve his or her demeanor.
No one knows your pet better than you. While veterinarians are trained to detect pain and illness, the first person to recognize if your pet is hurting will be you. Noticing and reporting any changes in normal behavior is the “front line” to getting the problem resolved. Once the treatment begins, if your pet has had surgery or a traumatic pain, monitor them at least every two hours. For pets with chronic pain, it’s good to keep an eye on them as much as possible, and take them to see their veterinarian at least every three months. By working with your veterinarian to prevent and manage your pet’s pain, you’ll be helping them enjoy a happy life.