Pain in Dogs and Cats

Of Dogs and Cats

Many clients who bring their pet to the office do not realize that their companion is in pain. It is very important to note that our pets do not show pain like we do. This is largely a result of the evolutionary disadvantage of displaying pain if you are living in the wild. Just imagine a flock of ducks is migrating south for the winter. If one of the ducks stops for a sore shoulder do you think the others are going to wait? I have seen dogs and cats with broken limbs that hardly vocalize at all. When we palpate the limb they do let us know in a hurry to leave it alone. (That is one reason veterinarians develop very fast reflexes).


So it is important to observe your pet for subtle changes. Living with our companions gives us the advantage in seeing their everyday attitude and actions. As you go about day to day care note the following. First, what is your pet’s general attitude? Are they alert and outgoing? or are they becoming less social and withdrawn? Second are they able to get up and down comfortably? Does your dog go up and down stairs normally, or is there some reluctance? Does your cat jump up and down normally, or are they going to lower heights? Third, is your companion eating normally? Of course any lameness should be checked out by a veterinarian immediately.

It is our job as veterinarians to listen to your observations, and then to do a thorough physical exam. Remember animals do not act “normal” in the office. They are excited and their epinephrine and cortisol levels are elevated. This may mask their symptoms, so we do depend on your history to supplement our exam. Do not discount your own observations just because your pet seems active at the veterinarian’s office.

Pain control in pets is different than in people. Many drugs used for us, including over the counter drugs, are toxic to animals. Tylenol (acetaminophen) should never be given to cats. It can cause a fatal reaction. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAIDS) medicines can also be toxic to dogs and cats. Dogs easily develop ulcers; so many OTC NSAIDS cannot be used. A recent case in a veterinary journal described a greyhound given 1 naprosyn who was hospitalized for a bleeding ulcer.

So what do you do? First observe your companion closely, especially as they age. Second, get a yearly physical exam for your pet at your veterinarian’s office. An exam twice yearly is recommended for older pets – remember pets age much more rapidly than we do. Third consult your veterinarian before giving any medication. A good working relationship with a professional is key to helping your pet be comfortable and safe.

There are several types of prescription pain medicines that we utilize in veterinary medicine. Often a combination of drugs and neutroceuticals are prescribed. Next column we’ll discuss treatment options that can help those pets in pain.

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