ASK THE VETS
By Dr. Kim Anderka and Dr. Christina Douthwaite
My vet thinks my senior dog is in pain and needs medicine for it. She still eats and drinks fine and wants to go for walks so I don’t think she is. Am I missing something?
Pain is a unique and individual experience in both human and animals. It is a complex process that involves sensory and emotional components. Because of that, it makes it hard to appreciate how individuals feel and respond to pain. Because our pets can’t tell us they are in pain, veterinarians use behavioural signs, physical examination findings and their knowledge of likely causes of pain to guide in their diagnosis and management.
Pain can be divided into the two main categories of acute and chronic pain. Acute pain is usually associated with tissue damage or the threat of it. It is there to alter the animal’s behaviour in order to avoid or minimize damage. Most pet owners can easily recognize acute pain in their pet. It can include a painful limp from an injury, a sore belly that makes it hard for the pet to walk, or a cry or yelp when something that is hurting is touched.
It is the chronic pain that can require more scrutiny to detect or recognize. Animals by nature are required to hide their pain in order to survive. Animals can and will still eat and drink and try to maintain their usual routines in order to hide their weakness. For many pet owners, chronic pain goes unnoticed as it can be such a gradual change in the pet over time and is often thought to be just normal aging. Sometimes pain is manifested by the pet withdrawing from some of their normal patterns and routines. A normally social dog may start to withdraw and find sleeping places away from family members. A cat that used to enjoy being picked up, may become intolerant of being held or petted.
By asking questions before your examination, the veterinarian may already have some clues of where to look for pain. Your vet may notice changes in muscle mass with your pet that are clues to them having pain with their mobility. Many dogs come into the clinic with front legs and shoulders that look like a body builder and a thin muscle-wasted hind end. They may never have limped once but it is a giveaway that they are in chronic pain in their back legs and have had to redistribute their body weight forward to lighten the load on the sore joints. Your veterinarian may also note changes in your pet’s heart rate or temperature, reluctance or resentment with performing range of motion tests on a limb, tension or pain on palpation of their abdomen, pain on manipulation of a lump, or a painful mouth that chatters when touched. Pets can also draw attention to a painful area by licking, biting or scratching at it. Some signs of pain you can watch for at home are changes in your pet’s appetite (did they used to gobble their food up and now it takes hours to slowly finish it), changes in their sleep/wake cycle, difficulty settling down and the ease of sitting, lying down and jumping up. In addition, keep an eye on their interest in exercise and playfulness and watch for anxiety or other behavioural changes.
For cats, watch for a hunched posture with squinting eyes, a lack of grooming, attempts to escape handling, aggression, withdrawal from the family, or laying and hiding in unusual places. Don’t be fooled, many cats will still purr even when they are in severe pain.
There are many excellent, safe pain control options available to keep our pets comfortable. Never reach for human drugs such as Tylenol, Advil or Aspirin as these drugs can be toxic in small doses or even cause a fatal reaction. Your pet’s internal organ health should be assessed to determine what pain control is safest for them.
Helping to keep your dog comfortable when they are experiencing chronic pain, leads to a better quality and quantity of life.
For your senior dog, we suggest you discuss your questions with your veterinarian. Sometimes the reverse strategy of treating for pain and then judging the pet’s response can tell a story of the level of pain they have been coping with by the improved behavioural and emotional responses from their new found comfort. We wish you all the best with your dog and hope that you see a newfound level of joy and comfort in her life.