Is My Pet in Pain?

Pet Tales
by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.

Is My Pet in Pain?

Doctor, do you think my pet is in pain? It is a question clients often ask their veterinarian. In my experience, caring owners are most likely to be concerned about this issue at certain specific times in the life of their pet. If their pet has had surgery, naturally they are worried that pain may a problem in the post-operative period. Anytime a pet is suddenly stricken by an accident or a new illness, owners worry that pain may be a component of the problem. Also, when a pet is living with chronic disease or illness - cancer, kidney disease, arthritis, or dental disease, for example - owners fear pain may be a feature of that illness. However, I think I am most often asked the question when talking about the health status and/or discussing quality of life issues with a client regarding a senior pet.

Most everyone has an understanding of pain. This familiarity with pain comes either from personal experience with it or from communication with someone close, who has suffered from it. Owners who care deeply for a cherished pet, sincerely, never want that pet to be in pain. They are very frightened, I believe, that being unable to speak with their pet, they will not be able to recognize pain in their pet and therefore be unable to take action to alleviate or reduce that pain. With an old or aged pet, one who has been loved so much over the years, the thought of inflicting such a misery on it, may be more distressful than the thought of losing the pet through euthanasia.

Pain is defined as an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with
actual or potential tissue damage. As they have with humans, researchers have made attempts to evaluate or measure pain in animals. At present, there are no ideal methods or "gold standard" systems available to do this. Since animals cannot report their degree of pain, evaluation must be made by outside observers and therefore tends to be subjective in nature.

There are, however, clinical signs that can be used with a satisfactory degree of accuracy to determine if a dog or cat is in pain. In many instances, owners may be the best persons to judge whether their pet is experiencing pain.

Pain may be indicated by the start of abnormal activity that may appear as either an increase or a decrease in activity. Cats and dogs may appear restless, agitated or even delirious. At the other extreme they may be lethargic, withdrawn, dull or depressed. They may be unresponsive to environmental stimuli. The normal sleep/awake cycle may be disrupted such that less sleep than normal is obtained. Normal activity such as grooming, especially in cats or eating may decrease or stop. Pets may bite, lick, chew or shake painful areas.

Painful dogs and cats may assume abnormal body postures attempting to relieve or cope with pain in a given area. Dogs with abdominal pain may adopt a posture with rigid torso and arched back, cats sit with legs tucked under them and resent being moved or their abdomen being touched. Dogs who have disc or other spinal pain may be reluctant to lie down despite obvious exhaustion.

Sometimes changes in facial expression can be used to detect pain in dogs and cats. Dogs may hold their ears back or in a down position. A pet feeling pain may have eyes that are wide open with dilated pupils or partially closed with a dull appearance. They may display a "fixed stare" into space, apparently oblivious to their surroundings. Occasionally dogs will even show a type of grimace, uncharacteristic of their normal appearance.

Disuse or guarding of a painful area is usually a reliable indicator of pain. The pet's gait may be abnormal, especially if movement influences the level of pain. Vocalization may indicate pain but it is an insensitive and non-specific indicator. Dogs may whimper, whine, yelp, groan, grunt, yowl or vocalize any combination of these sounds. Cats may meow continuously, yowl, scream or at the other extreme, become completely silent.

Interactive behaviours are usually changed if a pet is in pain. They may become more aggressive and resist handling or palpation or, in contrast, they may become more timid seek closer contact with care-givers.

There are a number of physiologic signs that may suggest pain - more rapid, shallow breathing, increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, dilated pupils, or even salivation.

If you are familiar with your pet, I believe you will easily be able to recognize changes indicating pain may be affecting your pet. I would hope that prompt consultation with your veterinarian would bring about control or elimination of the concern for both you and your pet.