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Is Your Pet In Pain?

Pet Expressions of Pain

Know your pet's usual activities and energy levels.  Be alert to changes in behavior or habits indicating that pain is present.  Veterinarian James Clarkson suggests watching for the following to help identify pet pain.

Start with the obvious signs of vocalizing, whimpering, and limping.  Harder to distinguish signs, but signs that are more common may be one or more of these:

  • Lack of appetite
  • Body position is abnormal
  • Posture is pensive or hunched
  • Activity level has decreased
  • Handling your pet elicits a response that isn't typical
  • Acting withdrawn, self-isolating or hiding
  • Movement is painful so they have accidents in the house
  • Shakes or shivers

There are signs to look for when your pet is experiencing pain.  Together you and your veterinarian can identify and help your pet with   pain that may be present. The issue of pain in animals is so critical that the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) teamed up with the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) to develop guidelines and recommendations for veterinarians. The guidelines give veterinarians information and protocols about pain thresholds, causes of pain, medications to resolve pain and treatment recommendations.

"The most common culprits behind pain are trauma and arthritis. Things have come so far in pain management," says Dr. James Clarkson. "Because of that, pets are living better lives." Clarkson, a veterinarian for nearly 35 years says that he's "embarrassed that we didn't do more to address pain in pets during my early years of practice." 

During your visit with your family veterinarian, the doctor will assess your pet. The veterinarian will examine your pet's body and feel each area to check for lumps, bumps, sensitivity, swelling, inflammation, or tenderness. A physical exam includes moving your pet's joints and feeling their response to the movement. Dogs and cats rarely cry in pain during the exam, but your veterinarian can detect areas that they are guarding.

Your pet's exam may also help your veterinarian understand the cause of the pain present. It may be necessary for your pet to have x-rays taken to make a full and accurate diagnosis. Your veterinarian will advise you as to the steps needed to move your pet toward recovery. Other treatments could include medication, physical therapy, or surgery.

There are many different prescription drugs used for pain in pets; some may be used alone, or more commonly, they are used in combination.  "Medications are metabolized very differently by different species.  Dosages can vary due to age, weight and species," says Dr. Clarkson.  For example, many pain medication used in dogs can not be used in cats.  Any medications your veterinarian prescribes must be used exactly as ordered, and you should not use any human medicines without asking your veterinarian. Always discuss the use of herbs or natural remedies with your veterinarian before using them with your pet. Adverse reactions can occur. These substances can also be toxic to pets.

PetsMatter suggests looking for clues in your pet's behavior.  Monitor the following and call your family veterinarian to report abnormalities or changes in your pet's behavior.

  • Limping/ lameness
  • Posture changes
  • Panting
  • Snapping when touched
  • Restlessness or being less active
  • Hesitation going up stairs
  • Lack of appetite
  • Dilated pupils
  • Vocalization
  • Inappropriate urination
  • Sudden behavior changes

    Clarkson advises that he is seeing more pets with dental pain in his office.  He reports that the majority of these pets are over the age of three or four.  Being alert to possible dental pain is also important and he suggests that owners keep an eye on pets for these red flags:

    • An odd head tilt
    • Passing up treats
    • Avoiding crunchy food
    • Eating wet food only
    • Not eating at all
    • Taking longer to eat
    • Drooling
    • Odor involving the mouth
    • Dogs avoiding chew toys or bones

    Dr. Clarkson advises that he is seeing more pets with dental pain in his office.  He reports that the majority of these pets are over the age of three or four. Many pets have severe dental disease and even abscesses without showing obvious signs of their pain. They may chew on one side of their mouth, or may swallow their food whole as they still have a drive to eat.  Symptoms of dental disease are odor from the mouth and inflamed gums. There may be drooling or even sneezing.  Signs of very severe pain that may be a result of dental pain include:

    • Passing up treats
    • Avoiding crunchy food
    • Eating wet food only
    • Not eating at all
    • Taking longer to eat
    • Dogs avoiding chew toys or bones

    "We help clients relate to the need for pain control by comparing the pain humans experience with similar procedures or illnesses," advises veterinarian Spencer Tally.   Your veterinarian will  help you understand how to control your pet's pain.  Pain management is essential to your pet's wellness and also helps the process for a speedy recovery.

    1American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) and American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP). AAHA/AAFP Pain management guidelines for dogs and cats.
    2American Animal Hospital Association. Accredited practices assess pets for pain. PetsMatter Volume 2 Issue 5.
    American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA). Is your pet in pain? PetsMatter, Volume 3 Issue 3.
    4Shaw, Lorrie. What to do when you suspect your pet is in pain, but hiding it.
    5Washington State University's College of Veterinary Medicine. How to tell if your pet's in pain.

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