Recognizing and Managing Pain in Pets

Recognizing and Managing Pain in Pets
By Dr. Emily Hoppmann, DVM

Our pets can be masters at disguising pain and disease, and they certainly can’t tell us how they are feeling, so it can be very hard for owners to know if their pet is not feeling well. A pet’s ability to hide pain, illness, or any other signs of weakness originates from their natural instinct to protect themselves in the wild, even though they have been domesticated for so long. The problem is that in the animal kingdom, showing signs of weakness would make on animal more susceptible to attacks by predators or being isolated from their group of peers. In many cases, signs of pain are often subtle, indirect and extremely hard to pin-point. Thus, we rely heavily on you as a pet owner to recognize changes that might indicate your pet is in pain and our examination findings during veterinary visits. If you ever have any concerns that your pet is not acting like himself, please schedule a veterinary exam as soon as possible to ensure that we catch any problems as early as possible.

As a veterinarian, I only get to see your pets when they come in for visits so I do not know what is going on at home and pets often act very different at the vet than they do at home. Therefore, it is important to keep close tabs on your pet throughout all life stages in order to recognize warning signs to uncover aches and pains early so that I can catch and treat any issues in order to halt or slow the progress as effectively as possible. We often view the age of our pet and what life stage they are in as we would if they were a human; for example, we think of a three year old dog as still being very young, but if that pet was a human they would be more like a college age human. This is because animals tend to age exponentially versus on a constant scale like humans do, and therefore changes in body confirmation and development occur at a much faster rate. This is why a dog that is only a few years old can already have medical issues that we generally do not think about occurring until they are much older. There are also a number of diseases that pets are born with (congenital issues) that can affect the muscles, joints, and bones and signs can be seen very early in life. A pet’s musculoskeletal system is not fully developed until 12 to 24 months of age, so they can start to show signs of pain while they are still developing, have issues when they are young that they grow out of, or start to show signs of disease only after their development is complete. This is why you are not able to have your pet tested/certified for the presence or absence of hip dysplasia until they are at least 2 years old; the body is just changing too much up until that point to have an accurate answer. There are a number of changes within the body (such as high heart rates, abnormalities when palpating a certain area, or changes in temperature), that can be recognized during physical examinations that act as signals for me that something is wrong and needs to be addressed. This is just another reason why bi-annual wellness examinations and yearly blood work are critical for catching diseases early – giving your pet the best prognosis for management and/or treatment of any issues that may be occurring.

We all know what a challenge it can be to catch signs of disease or pain since pets are as adept at hiding ailments, but none of us want our babies to not feel good. This is why it is critical to know subtle signs to look for that will help cue you in to your pet not feeling his best. Behavioral changes are one way pets communicate that they are in pain. This can include the absence of normal behaviors (such as grooming, playing, or eating), changes in your pets reaction to touch (for instance, pets who don’t like to be petted at all or in certain spots anymore), and abnormal behaviors (such as vocalizing loudly, hiding from/avoiding human interaction, aggression, and posturing irregularly). Another sign that many people just attribute to normal aging changes is the unwillingness of their pet to jump up/down on furniture or use the stairs; however, this typically is seen if a pet is in pain and is not something that is a normal change at all. If you see any of these signs, a comprehensive physical exam and other diagnostics (such as blood work, digital radiographs, ultrasound, etc) are the only way we can pinpoint the root of the problem and get your pet feeling better. We all want the same thing – to provide pets with the longest, healthiest, happiest life possible!

Once your pet has been examined and diagnosed with a pain-related issue, it is likely that they will need medications to help manage pain and inflammatory response. These pain medications are central to your pet’s health and comfort so it is extremely important to avoid missing doses or dosing improperly. There are various formulations and ways of administering pain medications for your pet and together we can work to find the right dosage and delivery method that suits your and your pet’s needs. By working together and having routine follow-up visits and blood work, the likelihood your pet receives the correct amounts of medications in order to remain comfortable day-to-day improves immensely. Always remember that human medications and over-the-counter medications are often dangerous, even fatal, to pets so never give your pet medications without consulting us. This can be a very confusing issue for owners because, even though the name of your medication and your pet’s medication is similar, it does not mean that the preparation is the same and it is not harmful. Also, over-the-counter medications (even those with photos of veterinarians and pets or ones that claim to be pet-specific) are not regulated so there is no way to know what the hidden dangers really are. This is also why medications purchased via the internet are so scary – the veterinary pharmaceutical companies do not sell medications to these internet pharmacies, so there is no way to know if the medication is what it says it is or that it has been handled properly and is still effective. That is one of the reasons we have our own on-line pharmacy (which you can find on our website at so that we can provide the convenience of an on-line pharmacy delivering medications to your doorstep, but we know that they are what they say they are, are effective, and come straight from the veterinary pharmaceutical company.

Pets that are diagnosed with pain-related issues need more than just medicine to aid in the healing process or to minimize discomfort. For some pets, they need to have a particular exercise regimen and for others it is critical that they are confined and not active in order for their injury to heal. For pets that have an acute injury where they need to stay quiet and confined in order to heal do not understand that running and jumping and rough playtime all contribute or exacerbate the condition that is causing them so much pain. It is vital that once we have recognized pain, uncovered the root of the problem, and have started pain management treatments and confinement if necessary, that you do your best to help your pet rest since they won’t do it on their own! Crate training is one tool we highly suggest for owners to utilize for pain management and treatment – if your pet is anxious in a crate or is still too active, let us know so we can prescribe medication to help take the edge off and keep them sedated while they heal. Confining pets to a small area helps to minimize the opportunity to run, jump, and walk stairs, thus eliminating the chance for them to do more damage while you’re away from the home. We also advise that the time spent outside of the crate indoors be monitored closely to ensure that they remain in a restful state. When going outside for your pet to use the bathroom, place him/her on a short leash that does not allow him to run at all (a training leash that is only a few feet is perfect) and support the injured area using a sling. You can use a rolled up towel placed underneath your pet and help above your pet in order to be sure they do not have to bear weight on the injured area. If you have stairs, gating them off can be a helpful way to deter your pet from using them. If they need to go up flights of stairs, carry them with you. If your pet to too big to carry, then be sure to use the sling method to provide as much support as possible. If it has been determined that your pet must stay quiet and confined in order for an injury to heal, allowing them to be too active will mean that the injury will never be able to properly heal and will become a life-long issue. Also, a pet may seem to be much better and want to be more active but it takes the body much longer to heal than you or your pet may realize so be sure to be cleared to return to normal activity before allowing your pet to go back to his normal activity level.

If the root cause of your pet’s pain is determined to be a more chronic issue, such as arthritis or a congenital joint disease, keeping them active is very important. Just like with humans, exercising regularly helps to build strength in the muscles and helps prevent the joints from getting stiff. However, it is important to be sure that the exercise regimen does not do more harm than good. Low-impact activities are better for dogs with chronic pain, such as swimming or walking on a softer surface with more give than pavement (grass or an exercise track). You also want to be sure that you properly warm-up before exercising and work up slowly to a more brisk pace when walking or jogging. It is also helpful to know that this is also true while a pet is young and the musculoskeletal system is still developing. You do not want to take large breed dogs for long runs on hard surfaces while they are still growing because it can negatively affect the joints and cause a pre-disposition for arthritis and other diseases as they age.

Another critical part of long-term management of pain in your pet and prevention of joint disease (along with a host of other disease) is weight monitoring. Maintaining an ideal weight is key to overall good health and can add years to your pet’s life. Weight management is a two-fold process involving the proper diet (both type of food and amount) and exercise. The good news is that our pets cannot feed themselves, so once the proper type of food and amount is determined you are in complete control of being sure that your pet achieves optimal body weight. It may be hard to resist those adorable, begging eyes but remind yourself that you are keeping them happier and healthier by restricting their calories and preventing obesity from affecting both the quality and longevity of life. One easy trick is to eliminate high-calorie treats and substitute praise, extra play time, or low-calorie treats (such as baby carrots, low sodium green beans, or canned pumpkin) as your pet’s reward. Your pet should have a nice hour-glass figure, with an abdominal tuck and easily palpated ribs and pelvic bones, if they are at the ideal weight. If you are unsure of whether your pet is at his ideal weight, we can help you determine this and advise you on a good diet and the proper amount to feed! Again, we are here to work together to keep your loved one pain-free and living life to the fullest!