You hear your cat's cry of pain or see your aging dog limp to the food dish, and your heart hurts.
Witnessing pets in pain can leave owners feeling frustrated and powerless. But recent medical advances are giving vets more insight into the detection and treatment of animal pain, affording owners more control over their pets' comfort and health.
"Twenty years ago, veterinary schools taught that animals don't feel pain to the degree that humans do, so there wasn't much attention paid to the issue," says Dr. Dawn Boothe, DVM and professor of clinical pharmacology at Auburn University.
"Now, not only do we know they feel pain, we are learning that adequate, timely pain relief helps pets recover faster and better from trauma and surgery." This, she and other experts say, has resulted in a concerted effort among vets to more effectively deliver better, safer pain-relieving drugs as soon as they're needed.
Recognize the Problem and Act on It
Take an active role in your pet's health by keeping a log of behavioral changes that might indicate she's in pain. Some are obvious; a sudden limp or a flinch when you touch a tender spot is a clear sign that your pet is experiencing discomfort—and a cue to see a vet immediately.But some stoic pets don't give outward signs, says Dr. Sandee Hartsfield, DVM, a professor of small-animal medicine and surgery at Texas A&M University. "A pet with an acute injury like a broken leg is more likely to respond to you by moving away or biting or pawing you, while a pet suffering from chronic pain such as arthritis tends to be quieter than usual."
If you know your pet's discomfort is related to too much exercise or to age-related aches and pains, try these soothing techniques at home:
• Give therapeutic massages or take warm, moist towels from the dryer and apply them to sore muscles or joints once or twice a day.
• Adjust food portions to trim excess pounds, which will lessen the burden on legs and feet.
• Make sure your pet has a soft, warm bed in a dry area of your home away from cold drafts. If she's recovering from surgery, keep her in a quiet, cozy room, so she can rest and mend without being disturbed.
If your pet doesn't get progressively better, see your vet, and bring along your log of the behavioral changes you've noticed. This can help in case "white coat syndrome" occurs—symptoms disappear during the exam, only to return when the pet gets back home.
"These details help veterinarians determine the right pain medication to treat the condition," says Peter Hellyer, DVM, professor of anesthesiology at Colorado State University.
Of utmost importance, experts say, is what not to do with a sick pet. Never give any over-the-counter medication, such as baby aspirin, without first consulting your veterinarian, because reactions can be toxic.
And don't scold or punish a pet that urinates or defecates in the house. If she's suffering, she probably can't help it.
Know the Pain Signs
Here are the most common indications your dog or cat is hurting. See your vet if your pet:
• Alters behavior dramatically or suddenly seeks isolation or constant affection
• Winces, pulls back, or cries out when the body or limbs are touched
• Hesitates when getting up after lying down
• Acts grouchy, less playful, or more submissive
• Licks constantly at a particular body part
• Seems unresponsive or restless
• Has difficulty eating or sleeping
• Does less self-grooming (especially true of cats)
Know Your Pet's Pain Meds
By developing a basic understanding of pain medications, you can advocate for your pet. If you go to a large clinic, for instance, you may not always see the same doctor.
A new vet may prescribe a drug that could irritate the digestive tract, and only you will know to tell him that your pet has a sensitive stomach. Pain medications for dogs and cats fall into three main categories: nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), opioids, and corticosteroids. A working knowledge of each will help you know what's best for your animal.
When consulting with your vet, be specific: Ask when your pet's pain should subside. If you feel that your veterinarian is not adequately addressing the pain, get a second opinion. Your local veterinary hospital is a good starting place for referrals to vets who have completed courses in pain management.
Here are the uses of each basic type of pain medication for your pet. Be sure to ask your vet what side effects—if any—you should watch out for.
NSAIDs (such as aspirin and carprofen, brand name Rimadyl)Uses: Relieve swelling and chronic aches; often prescribed for arthritis or postsurgical pain
Downsides: Though not extremely powerful, NSAIDs can cause stomach upset, ulcers, and vomiting in some animals
OPIOIDS (such as morphine)
Uses: Provide strong pain relief and sedation; often given the day before and right after surgery
Downsides: These potent narcotics are expensive, and some animals experience grogginess for days afterward
CORTICOSTEROIDS (such as prednisone)
Uses: Reduce inflammation; used to treat arthritis and to speed joint healing Downsides: Long-term use can weaken an animal's immune system and lead to high blood pressure, diabetes, and kidney disease