Ouch! The not-so-universal language of pain

“There is no fundamental difference between man and animals in their ability to feel pleasure and pain, happiness and misery” 

Charles Darwin

A veterinarian is a jack of all trades. Among all of the medical, dental, and surgical roles we fill, one makes us very different than our counterparts in human healthcare: the role of animal translator. No, I’m not claiming that we all have full length Dr. Doolittle conversations with your pets (though I am known to talk to the pet just as much as I talk to the client sometimes). I am talking about our unique abilities to make inferences about how animals feel from body language and our physical exam.

You see, animals may express signs of pain differently than us, but studies confirm they experience the same pain signals as humans. This means they feel the same pain as we do, but they may not show it.  Furthermore, the most common type of unrecognized pain is chronic.  Contrary to the yelp-inducing acute pain of a stepped-on tail, these are the aches and pains one suffers with, often silently, on a daily basis. Dr. Vogelsang of Pawcurious wrote a slightly more cheeky article on this subject and made a great analogy when she said:

“If you’ve ever spent time walking around a senior citizen center, you’ll notice two things: they walk very slowly, probably because many of them are nursing sore bodies, and they don’t spend a lot of time screaming.”

Oftentimes, a well-meaning owner doesn’t recognize signs of chronic pain until it is severe. This is why an annual exam is SO important for both dogs and cats. PLEASEtrust in your veterinarian’s ability to detect pain, even if your pet doesn’t seem painful to you at home.  Remember–they speak a different “pain language” than people, and the signs are subtle. The earlier chronic pain is detected and treated, the more successful our treatment will be in the long term.

The 2 most common sources of chronic pain in pets are dental disease and arthritis.  We can and must remove the source of pain in dental disease (by repairing or extracting diseased teeth), which is relatively simple.  Arthritis is a more complex issue because we usually can’t just surgically remove the source of pain, which is the joint itself. That means we have to help you manage it for the rest of your pet’s life, in a way that will not negatively impact his or her vital organs or quality of life.  It is always a team effort, and often leads to wonderfully close relationships between client and vet.

In the next few posts, I will address the many different therapies for chronic pain and arthritis.  None are meant to be used alone, rather they are each building blocks to a safe and effective game plan to hit pain where it hurts (pun intended) with minimal side effects.

Want some extra credit?  Here are some subtle signs of pain that you can learn to recognize from home.

  • Decreased interest in activities and play
  • Reluctance to use stairs or jump on furniture
  • Sleeping more
  • Eating less or eating slowly
  • Weight loss or muscle atrophy
  • Hiding behavior
  • Urinating/defecating in the house
  • Abnormal posture
  • Difficulty rising from a laying or sitting position
  • Excessive grooming
  • Dislike of grooming or petting

If you are noticing any of these behaviors, please don’t wait for your pet’s next annual exam to talk to your vet.  

And if you ever wonder whether you are over-reacting when you bring your pet in for “not being himself,” the answer is always a resounding NO!!!  You are being an astute and well-educated advocate for your pet and we love you for it!!!

I will leave you with this ridiculous meme as a reminder that cats are especially stoic and avoid showing overt signs of pain at all costs.  Don’t let them suffer just because they put on a tough front!