Controlling pain in animals has been a compelling goal of veterinarians for centuries, but we have long lacked the means. It’s really the work of just the past twenty years that has brought pain management for pets to a truly humane level. Even now it’s more of a well-honed art than pure science.
A big part of the problem lies in recognizing when there is pain. How do we know if kitty’s mouth hurts? Just because she’s eating well, we can’t assume those eroded teeth and diseased gums aren’t painful. If our teeth looked the same or if our joints were worn to the bone like those of many elderly dogs, few of us would stay quiet. Yet, that’s what sore-mouth kitty does, that’s what our senior citizen dogs with arthritis do – they get quiet, less playful, less active. And we think they’re just “getting old”.
Many times I’ve mentioned providing pain control for a dog or cat with a muscle strain or arthritis problem and the pet’s owners respond with a surprised, “but he doesn’t seem sore. “ In most cases, when an animal is limping, there is pain; even in the absence of whining or licking at the area. Finding the cause of the lameness is important, but so is controlling the resultant pain. Even when there’s no limp, difficulty getting up and disinterest in the treasured W-A-L-K can be clues that something hurts.
Historically, people have believed that animals just don’t feel pain the way we do. Although that assessment may be hard to understand these days, it took quite a number of studies to change those old attitudes. Today, veterinary staff are trained to look for subtle signs, even watching facial expressions in their patients in attempts to keep them comfortable. There’s a chart pinned up in our treatment room with drawings of cats showing varying degrees of pain. If there’s any doubt and especially if we think the animal’s condition would be painful for a human, we medicate.
So now that we are more expert at identifying pain, what do we do for it? Just like in humans, the response to any drug varies from one animal to another. If we are dealing with a condition we expect to be very painful, we will use more than one type of medication; perhaps an anti-inflammatory with a narcotic. Many of the drugs we use are human pharmaceuticals. We use patches that release narcotics slowly through the skin, along with injectable and oral medications. For hard-to-pill kitty, there are liquids that absorb through the gums.
Cats are tricky to medicate in many ways since a lot of the drugs we use can cause serious side-effects in that species. Managing feline arthritis is one of the big current challenges for veterinary pain control experts. While the search for safe medications continues, we are using special diets, supplements, physiotherapy and environmental adaptations to keep old cats and dogs more comfortable. Simply adding a few steps or stools to help an arthritic kitty reach the sunbeam on the windowsill can ease the days for your old friend.
If you spot signs of pain in your pets, contact your veterinarian to see what can be done. And good for you for noticing.
There are dozens of organizations focused on pain management (“analgesia”) for pets and a simple Google search will provide hours of reading if you are interested in learning more.
Dr. Fiona Gilchrist