It's a beautiful Saturday afternoon and you have just gotten home from a day of hiking and playing Frisbee catch with your pup! While you unwind and unpack, you happen to note that "Max" is only using three legs...he's holding up his right rear leg and won't put it down. Like any pet loving parent, you are immediately concerned, but do you really need to go see Max's veterinarian? Is it time for a trip to the animal ER?
Veterinarians and veterinary staff often hear these very questions on a daily basis. We hear "I don't think he's in pain...he's not using the leg, but he's not crying or howling". Why is it so hard to know when our canine and feline buddies are uncomfortable or hurting?
It's true that many pets will mask any signs of illness or distress. Cats are especially good at hiding their pain. Remember, while we might think of our cats as the mighty hunter of our backyard kingdom, our feline friends are also considered to be a prey animal for other predators, like large raptors, coyotes or big cats, such as bobcats or cougars. Predators are drawn to animals in pain like a moth is drawn to a bright light. So, in an attempt to keep themselves safe, most cats will hide and try to keep their discomfort private. Dogs will hide their pain as well, but it's my opinion that they are often a very stoic animal (like pit bulls, Rottweilers, etc) or that their desire to please us often overrides their pain (think of those happy Labs)!
In an effort to help pet owners better understand their pets AND get pets the help they need in a timely manner, the International Veterinary Academy of Pain Management (IVAPM) has started a campaign to help highlight the signs of pain in pets and how owners can respond.
Keep in mind that animals in pain may not vocalize. For dogs, symptoms of discomfort can include decreased social interactions, decreased appetite or even an anxious expression. As pain continues or worsens, a reluctance or refusal to move might ensue along with whimpering.
Your normal out-going dog could become withdrawn, exhibit guarding behavior, changes in posture or even aggression towards family with whom he is normally tolerant. In some cases, self-mutilation might even happen!
For cats, the signs are often extremely subtle. Again, a reluctance to engage socially and increased hiding behavior are common. But, cats who have a reluctance to jump or who engage in excessive grooming could be trying to tell you how much they hurt. Like our canine friends, aggression can occur as well as the perceived loss of good litterbox habits.
The good news in all of this is that we CAN help our furry friends. Knowing what to watch for is half the battle and when you note these kinds of symptoms, a good physical exam with your veterinarian is in order. While your doc will do his or her best to pinpoint the potential discomfort, hearing a good history from you, the pet's owner, is also important. Let the veterinarian know about any potential injuries, over-exertions or strange behavior that you are seeing. Weight loss is another subtle sign that our pets are not feeling their best.
When it comes to treating pain, there are a wide variety of options available. Sometimes, simply losing some weight can help joints affected by arthritis to feel better and lessen inflammation. Likewise, moderate exercise or something like swimming could be a first step. Even ice packs or heat therapy can be useful!
WATCH VIDEO: New Laser May Beam Away Your Pet's Pain
New technologies, like Class IV "cold laser therapy", stem cell therapy and platelet rich plasma have all shown some degree of promise in alleviating pain. Older therapies, like acupuncture, massage or chiropractic techniques also have their place for some veterinarians and owners. Many veterinarians also are now looking at how physical rehabilitation can help. This video from the Veterinary News Network helps outline how lasers are being used commonly in veterinary practices:
But, by far, the most common method of pain relief is through pain relief medications. Products like Rimadyl(R) (also known as carprofen), Dermamaxx(R) (deracoxib) and Metacam(R) (meloxicam) are staples in most veterinary pharmacies. These drugs are Non-Steroidal Anti Inflammatory medications or NSAIDs for short. They are similar to aspirin or ibuprofen in their actions. New drugs like Galliprant(R) are finding promise and even some nerve pain relief drugs, like gabapentin, have been used in our pets in an effort to provide some easing of pain.
IT IS IMPORTANT TO NOTE that pet owners should NEVER, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCE, give their pets any over the counter medication, like pain relief drugs (acetominophen, ibuprofen, aspirin, etc) without speaking to their veterinarian. These drugs are not FDA approved in our pets and can cause some unfortunate adverse reactions. In fact, a single Extra Strength Tylenol capsule can kill a cat!
When you note your pet is not feeling like his or herself, don't just chalk it up to the weather or old age...plan to see your veterinarian. Working together, our veterinarians, their teams and you can put some pep back in your pup's step! Tell us about what you and your veterinarian have done to help your pets!