As veterinarians, veterinary technicians and veterinary support staff, we are often asked how to identify signs of pain in pets. September is Animal Pain Awareness Month. Read on below to understand how to identify signs of pain in your dog or cat, strategies for pain control, and the importance of effective pain management.
Signs of Pain in Dogs
While some dogs are very vocal when they are painful, many dogs tend to hide their level of pain, giving only subtle clues that they are experiencing discomfort. Signs of pain in our canine friends include but are not limited to the following:
- Reluctance to use stairs
- Withdrawing from activities with family members
- Poor appetite
- Sensitive to touch in certain areas
- Limping or non-weight bearing in one or multiple limbs
- Licking at an area
- Vocalizing, whimpering or whining
- Straining and/or difficulty urinating or passing stool, or eliminating in inappropriate areas
- Personality changes
- Increased heart rate and/or breathing rate outside of normal conditions (for example, when relaxing)
Signs of Pain in Cats
Cats tend to be stoic and do their best to hide their pain as a survival mechanism. Watch for the following signs as possible indicators of pain in your cat:
- Hiding from family members
- Decreased overall grooming, or over-grooming of specific areas
- Reluctance to be touched in certain areas or in general
- Aggression or personality changes
- Limping or stiffness
- Reluctance to jump up onto surfaces
- Poor litterbox habits
- Straining to urinate or defecate, or reluctance to urinate or defecate
- Poor appetite and/or drinking less water
- Hunched body posture and/or “pinched” facial expression
- Increased heart rate and/or breathing rate
Why Pain Management Matters:
- Being exposed to increased levels of pain can delay the healing process due to the release of cortisol, a hormone that is released in times of stress.
- Balanced electrolytes are essential for good health. When poorly managed, pain can lead to electrolyte imbalances and negatively affect the heart, liver and kidneys.
- Poor pain control can lead to suppression of the immune system, which is responsible for fighting off infection.
- Pain can also lead poor growth in young animals.
Types of Pain Medication
Depending on the type of pain your pet is experiencing, your veterinarian will prescribe an appropriate medication to target your pet’s pain.
- Corticosteroids such as dexamethasone, prednisolone and prednisone may be prescribed by your veterinarian for arthiritic pain or discomfort due to allergies. These medications often require bloodwork to ensure safety, as they can have long-term effects on your pet’s kidney and liver health.
NSAIDs (Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs):
- NSAIDs are appropriate for mild to moderate acute (short-term, sudden onset) or chronic (long-term) pain. Commonly used veterinary NSAIDs include Metacam (meloxicam) and Rimadyl (carprofen).
- Human over-the-counter NSAIDs such as Advil or Tylenol are never recommended for pets, as they have limited ability to metabolize these drugs and they are toxic (especially to cats) in low doses.
- Opioids are used for moderate to severe pain, for example as part of a post-surgical pain protocol.
- Includes hydromorphone, buprenorphine and fentanyl.
Other Strategies for Coping with Pain:
Once the source of your pet’s pain has been identified, the following strategies are examples of changes that may be helpful in alleviating pain when combined with the recommendations of your veterinarian:
- Alter the home environment as best as possible to help alleviate pain. For example, if your dog has difficulty jumping up onto the couch, purchase a set of small stairs or a step stool to help alleviate the arthritic discomfort associated with jumping onto the couch.
- Choose elevated bowls if your pet has difficulty stooping down to reach their food and water dishes.
- For cats, choose a litterbox that is easily accessible with low sides and no cover.
- Provide carpets or “paw socks” to dogs that have difficulty standing up from a relaxed position.