Pets Feel Pain Too


Our pets feel pain too. Seems obvious, right? You might be surprised to know that pain management is a relatively new field in veterinary medicine. Because our pets can’t talk to us (at least not in our own language!), knowing how and when they feel pain can be a challenge. But more and more we are appreciating how important recognizing and treating pain is.

What is pain? Pain is a complicated process but ultimately it is caused by a signal sent by nerves to the brain, where this signal is felt as pain. Possible triggers for pain signals can include mechanical (cutting, crushing, tearing), thermal (burns or frostbite), or chemical (like getting soap in your eyes) injuries. Pain can be short-term or long-term (chronic). Pain can also come from within, such as we see with organ diseases and cancer.

There was a time when we used to think a little bit of pain was a good thing. People would say that the pain helped keep our pets quiet so they could rest more and heal faster. Without a doubt this has been disproven by many different scientific studies. Now we know that pain slows healing. Pain is meant to alert us to an injury and protect us from repeating the injury, but when pain lingers it delays healing. Patients whose pain is controlled heal faster and with fewer complications than those whose pain isn’t controlled.

One of the biggest challenges in our pets is telling when they are in pain. Dogs and cats definitely show signs of pain, but dogs and cats show pain very differently from each other and of course very differently from humans. Some of the signs are obvious to us, but others can be difficult to recognize or missed if we don’t know to look for them.

Dogs are probably easier to detect pain in than cats. Some of the more obvious signs include limping or crying. Chewing or licking at something is often due to itchiness but can sometimes indicate pain. Many times the only sign of pain will be subtle changes in behavior such as being less active or even sleeping more. Not eating can be a sign of many things, but pain is one of them. If you get good at reading dogs’ facial expressions, sometimes you can detect pain in the look of their eyes or the way they carry their ears.

Cat pain is much harder to appreciate. Cats naturally tend to hide their pain. This is an adaptive response that helps them avoid seeming weak or ill to predators or competitors. Unfortunately it often makes it difficult to tell when they are in pain. Their symptoms are usually very subtle. They will tend to be less active, sitting quietly and doing very little. Their appetite might decrease. Occasionally you can pick up signs of pain in their face, again by the look of their eyes and the way they carry their ears.

Many times we have to make assumptions about when our pets are in pain. Whenever we are dealing with an illness that we know causes discomfort in people, it is probably safe to assume it also causes pain in our pets. When we see pets with arthritis, torn ligaments, cuts and bruises, and eye injuries, we know these must be uncomfortable. Less obvious but still potentially painful conditions include bladder infections, pancreatic disease, and other internal diseases.

Dental pain deserves special attention. This is probably one of the hardest types of pain to appreciate in our pets. We know when we have a sore tooth, it hurts. Those of us who have ever had a toothache can appreciate just how miserable it feels. We assume our pets must feel similarly when they have dental disease, but they don’t show it so it is hard to know. Our pets will usually continue to eat no matter what, even in the face of horrible dental disease (I guess they just love their food that much!). Since we can’t talk with them, we can’t know just how bad they might feel. We do know that often after dental disease is treated many cats and dogs will act happier and livelier.

The good news is we now have many different options for managing pain in our pets. Of course treating or eliminating the illness that is causing the pain is the most important goal. However, medications, physical therapy, and other alternatives are used to treat pain until the illness is resolved or in cases where it cannot be completely resolved. If you are concerned about pain in your pet, your veterinarian can help evaluate them and treat them if needed. No pet should have to live with untreated pain.

Dr. Keith de la Cruz graduated from the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine in 2002. Dr. de la Cruz is an associate with AtlasVet (the Atlas District Veterinary Hospital) at 1326 H St. NE. Dr. de la Cruz is currently the treasurer/secretary of the Virginia Veterinary Medical Association and is a past president of the Northern Virginia Veterinary Medical Association.