What is pain? It’s sensory awareness of injury or illness, of course, but there’s more to it. Pain is unique to each individual. Factors that influence pain perception include genetics, the degree of injury and past history of pain.
Two types of pain affect pets. Most of us have experienced acute pain, from stubbing a toe to breaking a bone. Acute pain is protective, warning us to pull back from that hot fire, for instance. Animals experience acute pain, too. It usually goes away with time or treatment.
Chronic pain persists for longer than the normal healing period and is considered a distinct disease of the central nervous system. In essence, it’s pain that has lasted beyond its usefulness or that lingers after an injury has healed. Sometimes it’s the result of an ongoing physical problem, such as osteoarthritis. Other conditions that can cause chronic pain in pets include cancer, glaucoma, interstitial cystitis, pancreatitis and stomatitis.
Both physically and emotionally, chronic pain has a damaging effect on a dog or cat’s well-being. Animals with chronic pain may change their movement or behavior in an attempt to limit discomfort. When they move less or move in abnormal ways, they become stiff, and pain increases. They may also reduce their interactions with humans or other animals because being touched causes pain. That puts a kink in their social relationships with family members.
One of the problems with chronic pain is that it often goes unrecognized. Pet pain isn’t always easy to assess. You may notice that your dog or cat is sensitive in certain areas or has odd behaviors, but those things don’t always make an appearance during a veterinary exam. What to bring to your veterinarian’s attention, with videos, if possible:
decreased grooming habits in cats
intensively licking specific areas
changes in posture when sitting or sleeping
difficulty or slowness standing up or lying down
reluctance to be petted or groomed
reluctance to go down stairs
difficulty jumping on or off furniture
poor appetite or nausea
any behavior that is unusual for that animal
A number of medications and techniques can aid in pain treatment and prevention. Especially for chronic pain, early recognition of the problem is key. Multimodal therapy incorporating nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, injectable disease-modifying osteoarthritis drugs such as Adequan, diet, nutritional supplements with anti-inflammatory effects, weight loss, massage, laser, and acupuncture can all benefit pets in pain. Multimodal treatment attacks pain through multiple pathways in the body, with the goal of directly or indirectly reducing inflammation that causes pain.
The best way to prevent chronic pain from developing is to treat acute pain promptly and aggressively. For acute pain related to surgical recovery, long-acting extended-release drugs are available for dogs and cats, providing post-operative pain relief for 24 to 72 hours. Some pain-relief medications for dogs and cats are chewable, making them easier to give. Others can be compounded into tasty liquids.
Dogs can take NSAIDs relatively safely for long periods, but no NSAIDs are approved for long-term use in cats. Cats are more sensitive than dogs to the side effects of drugs such as NSAIDs because they lack certain enzymes needed by the liver to safely break down the drugs.
Chronic pain develops over a long period, and treating it successfully takes time. With your veterinarian, set specific goals for managing your pet’s pain. It may be four to six weeks before you begin to see a response, but with good management, your pet can be moving well and feeling good again.
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by veterinarian Marty Becker and journalist Kim Campbell Thornton of Vetstreet.com. Joining them is dog trainer and behavior consultant Mikkel Becker.