How Do You Know If Your Pet Is In Pain?



During my experience talking to pet owners and helping senior pets, I’ve noticed that veterinarians’ definitions of pain vs the pet owners’ definitions of pain are vastly different. This may be because pet owners are emotionally attached to their pets and don’t want to think about that being a possibility, or it may be because they are not professionally trained to determine if a pet is painful.

Many pet owners only think of pain in animals as being a sharp pain causing the pet to vocalize. This would be if, for instance, you stepped on your pet’s tail accidentally. Your pet would cry out. But, what some people fail to understand is this is not the case with long term pain. Pets with chronic pain often suffer in silence.

If you have a chronic injury, meaning one that lasts more than a day or two, you don’t say “Ow” every time you feel it. You usually just deal with it and go about your day. Maybe you grimace getting up from a sitting position, or you get up very slowly. Maybe you have a limp. But, you don’t vocalize every time you move.

This is the same with pets. They can feel conditions like cancer or arthritis most of the day. They may show it by getting up slowly, being hesitant to lay down, and walking with a stiff gait, especially after exercise. But, they may not yelp or vocalize. They just get on with their lives. I hear many people say their pet is limping but doesn’t seem to be in pain. Well, then why is the pet limping? Aside from a very small number of anatomic defects that could cause limping without pain, most limping is due to pain. Think about it. When you limp, it’s usually because walking normally is painful.

Another way to determine pain is to think about how you would feel if you had the pet’s injury or illness. For instance, if you break your leg and it hurts, you can extrapolate and determine if a pet breaks his leg, it will hurt. Also, if you were to fall down a few steps and take a tumble, you would feel sore for a couple days. The same happens with pets. I find that thinking about how I would feel with the pet’s condition really helps determine if I need to prescribe pain medication or not.

In addition, as veterinarians, any time we think the pet is in discomfort, we consider that pain. So, if a pet has been vomiting all day, the nausea they must feel, in our minds, amounts to them feeling pain. If they haven’t been eating for a few days, they must not feel well. To us, this is also pain. Another example is if the pet has a heart or lung disease and is breathing abnormally. It may be that the pet is breathing faster than normal or is taking more of an effort to breathe. Think about if this were happening to you. This would be painful. Every breath would be an effort and you would be unable to sleep well. You would feel exhausted. Eventually, you would be unable to sustain that level of breathing and you would go into respiratory failure, where you couldn’t breathe at all. That would be a very painful process to undergo. Respiratory failure can happen at any point a pet is having difficulty breathing, but is more likely the longer it goes on. To avoid a difficult and painful passing in those situations, it is best not to wait long before considering euthanasia.

Determining if your pet is in pain can be difficult. Veterinarians go through whole courses in school and attend continuing education to learn more about this and how to handle it. So, if you are unsure if your pet is in pain, you can schedule a hospice consultation where a veterinarian can examine your pet, discuss the medical history, and observe your pet in his natural environment. If the veterinarian determines your pet is in pain, she will discuss ways to alleviate or allay it until the time for euthanasia arrives.

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