Pain Detectives

An elderly friend of mine complains about her aches and pains- her knees, hips and shoulders all give her trouble, but when I ask if she’s taken some form of pain relief her reply is that she would prefer to manage without, and so she becomes a martyr to her ailments. However, she is free to moan about them and I sometimes think this is a form of therapy in itself. Animals, on the other hand, don’t tend to complain about their aches, they usually make no noise about it at all and it behoves us as veterinary professionals and as pet owners to understand this and look for the other clues animals give regarding their pain. 

Physiological changes during pain such as increased heart rate, breathing and temperature are not easily measured at home and certainly don’t always tell us how much pain an animal has – only that it is present. More important are the behavioural changes that animals display and if an owner comes into the surgery saying their pet is “not himself” this could be an early indication of pain and discomfort.

Behavioural changes are characterised for either acute or chronic pain although the boundaries between the two are blurred. Acute pain has just started within the last few hours or a day or so and our pet will show signs of restlessness, inappetence, panting, walking strangely, a hunched abdomen or the classic “praying” position with the forelegs stretched forwards when sitting on their haunches. Whining or crying is very rare as in the wild this would leave them vulnerable to predation – better to stay quiet and hide.

Chronic pain occurs over weeks and months and leads to changes that owners often put down to ageing. Animals tend to hide or sleep more, change their eating habits, give up grooming and become matted and as they exercise less, also tend to put on weight. Personality changes can also occur with increased irritability and cantankerousness. 

Early detection and treatment of pain is ideal, and we would try to eliminate the painful disease completely. This is not always possible, as in the case of chronic arthritis, so we would try to manage the disease with pain relief but also provide exercise regimens, appropriate diet and weight loss programmes, and nutritional supplements.

There are analgesics for acute and chronic pain and finding the one most suited to your pet can take a few trials but there are more forms of pain relief for animals than there ever were before. They can be given as injections, tablets, patches and oral liquids. Acupuncture, massage and physiotherapy are also useful adjuncts but will need full assessment for the best care for your pet.

Assessment of pain is difficult but it’s elimination will make a great difference for your pet’s welfare and enjoyment of life. Don’t let your pet be a martyr, they don’t have anyone to talk to.