Animals are very good at hiding pain, which is why it’s important for veterinarians to educate clients on tell-tale signs that all is not well with their pet.
September is Animal Pain Awareness Month and the International Veterinary Academy of Pain Management (IVAPM) is helping raise awareness on how to recognize and manage pain in animals. The annual initiative coincides with human medicine’s Pain Awareness Month and includes outreach and information campaigns aimed at helping veterinarians educate consumers on how to recognize and manage chronic and acute pain through traditional and complementary treatments.
“It’s often very hard to know when an animal is suffering. Their signs of pain are subtle and it’s also part of their survival instinct to hide pain,” says IVAPM president-elect Jennifer Johnson, VMD, CVPP. “That’s why it is so important for veterinarians to conduct pain assessment exams at least annually and certainly as part of regular exams. We know chronic pain can have significant detrimental effects on lifespan and quality of life. By spotting pain early, veterinarians can better treat and manage pain.”
According to IVAPM, more than 45 million household pets suffer from chronic or acute pain, but unlike their human counterparts, they cannot tell us where it hurts.
The following are the most common signs of pain in animals:
Slowdown in activity
- Not going up or down stairs; difficulty standing after lying down can be signs of osteoarthritis
- Less play time—not playing as much as usual can signal pain in joints, neck, or back
- Less jumping/a reluctance to jump onto surfaces. This especially applies to cats who, when feeling well, love to explore high places. If they are not doing this, it is likely because of hip or back pain
Decreased eating and drinking. While loss of interest in food or water can signal a much more serious medical issue, it also can be a sign of mouth or abdominal pain
Changes in grooming behaviour—increased grooming or licking of an area on the body may indicate pain in that area or referred pain. Decreased grooming, especially in cats, may indicate it is too painful to twist around
Changes in urine or bowel movements could be related to pain and may indicate an inability to maintain the position to eliminate. Cats also may have trouble climbing in and out of the litter box
Increases in respiration may be caused by pain
Changes in routine; different sleeping patterns and not resting in the usual places also may indicate the animal is in pain
“Remember that any behavioural change can indicate a physical problem, not just that a pet is ‘grumpy,’ ‘old,’ or ‘depressed,’” Johnson notes. “The veterinarian is the best person to evaluate your pet for potential painful conditions. If you notice anything, please consult your veterinarian for a full examination, including a pain assessment, and talk about the findings.”
The following are options pet owners can implement to manage pain:
- Adopting a healthy lifestyle for the pet—This is the best preventive medicine and path to a longer, healthier, and happier life for animals just as it is in humans. Low-impact exercise and a healthy diet also should become part of pets’ daily routine
- Consider non-pharmacologic options for pain management, including acupuncture, pulsed electromagnetic field therapy, laser therapy, and chiropractic care. All can be a more cost-effective approach to pain management and relief than traditional medications
- Consult a veterinarian when they see any changes in their pets’ behaviour and health
Veterinarians are encouraged to conduct pain assessment exams at least annually and as part of regular exams. A physical exam is important to objectively monitor, measure, and manage pain.