I see dogs and cats in pain every day. Sometimes it is obvious and the reason the pet has been brought to the clinic. But more often, the signs of pain are much more subtle.
As part of my wellness exam, I check the hips, knees, and joints of my patients. I often get resistance when I try to extend the hips or feel crepitus (a crackly, crunchiness in the joint) when I bend the knees. I ask the owner if they have noticed any stiffness or pain in the pet and am surprised when they say "he seems to have a little trouble getting up in the morning, but I don't think he is painful." The owner is surprised when I say "that stiffness is a sign of arthritis pain." Often we will give the dog a week or two of pain medication and the owner (and dog) is pleasantly surprised to see how much more energetic the dog acts.
None of us wants our pets to be painful, but rarely do our dogs and cats yelp or cry out to let us know. So how do our pets tell us they are in pain?
Joint pain is very common in dogs and cats. Just like people, as they age they develop more arthritis in their joints. There are bony changes that decrease the range of motion of the joint and loss of cartilage between bones, causing bone to rub on bone (that is really painful!). Because arthritis is gradual and a "low-grade" pain, we all adjust to the increased discomfort. When you are a little sore the morning after exercising, you don't generally say "Ow!" every time you take a step, but you are probably a little slower getting up until you "work out" of the stiffness. People with arthritis rarely cry out either. They move more slowly, find ways to do things differently or stop doing things that cause pain.
Our pets are the same way. Perhaps your dog doesn't jump up to follow you every time you go into another room. Maybe she slows down on a walk or no longer pulls on the leash. Is your pet sleeping more or not getting up with you in the morning? Unless there is something really exciting (food, squirrel, car ride), a painful dog will prefer to stay still. But just because a dog has low-grade chronic pain doesn't mean they will stop chasing squirrels. Think of yourself: you have to be in pretty severe pain before you'd skip doing an activity you really enjoyed, even knowing you'd be more painful afterwards. That's what aspirin is for, right? (Please don't give aspirin to your dog without talking to your vet first! There are much better products available for long-term use in dogs and cats).
Other signs of pain in dogs include restlessness - they just can't get comfortable. Heavy panting can be from pain itself or from the anxiety of knowing that if they move they will hurt. Some dogs will not eat as much, perhaps from dental pain or discomfort walking to the bowl or neck pain when they lower their head to the bowl. Some dogs will avoid being touched because they ache all over or fear being hurt. Other dogs will show aggression or try to bite if a painful area on their body is approached or touched.
What about cats? They are masters at hiding pain. At age 12, over 90% of cats have degenerative joint disease ("arthritis") in at least one joint. But I rarely hear people telling me their cat is painful. Part of the problem is that cats normally sleep 18 hours per day. A cat in pain will likely be sleeping more, and also sleeping in the same spot for a longer period of time. Or they may be sleeping in "odd" places - closets, under chairs or under the bed. Cats prefer to be more hidden and in high locations, but cats in pain can't jump up on things very well. Cats don't usually pant, but will stop eating as much. Often cats with pain will stop using the litter box because it hurts to get in the box or to squat.
So watch for subtle behavior changes in your pet: slower getting up, not jumping on furniture as easily as in the past, sleeping more, not eating as well, and just not acting like they used to. Don't wait to bring your pet in for an exam until they are obviously limping, holding up a leg, or crying. There are many different options for treatment available to help your pet feel much better--we can help you find what works best for your pet!
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