Pet Pain: What You Don’t Know May Surprise You

I hope you aren’t in pain as you read this. But if you are, you probably know that pain is one of the most common reasons we go to our doctors. Pain in humans is such a major problem that in the U.S. alone, billions of dollars are spent treating pain and compensating for lost productivity from workers in pain. Pain also leads to social isolation and health problems,  not only from the painful condition itself but also from the effects of pain-induced stress.

To cope with the magnitude of this problem, a number of medical doctors choose to specialize solely in the treatment of pain, and some work in pain-specific treatment centers. But in spite of the vast problem of pain, many people still don’t recognize just how pervasive pain is and how debilitating it can be. To help spread the message, many pain organizations have deemed September to be Pain Awareness Month.

Pain Awareness Month is also an important campaign for pets since many people, including some veterinarians, still hold to the myth that animals don’t feel pain. Animals, however, have the same anatomical and physiological processes that produce pain in people. So if something would hurt us, we can say scientifically that it would hurt an animal. The reason pain in pets often goes unrecognized is because animals are very good at hiding pain, so we don’t always recognize that they’re suffering and need treatment for pain.

Why should you care about pain in your pet? If a pet can hide pain, it can’t be that bad, right? Unfortunately for our pets, that actually isn’t right. Pain causes tremendous stress on the body’s normal physiologic processes. Negative health effects of pain occur whether the pet is hiding pain or not. These negative effects can include fast and irregular heart beats, high blood pressure, impaired healing from surgery or wounds, decreased sleep, decreased appetite, behavior changes that can include aggression, and many other negative effects. These can compound the negative effects of the original pain-inducing disease or condition.

How can you tell if your pet might be in pain? If the pet has undergone any surgery or suffered trauma, pain will occur, and you should discuss pain management with your veterinarian. When your pet leaves the hospital, pain medication should be dispensed for administration at home.

Of course, there are many causes of pain other than surgery or injury, and you might not know that your pet has a painful condition. Changes in behavior are often a major clue. Of course, changes in behavior can occur for many reasons, and you need to consult your veterinarian, but pain should be one of the diagnoses to consider. For example, we often find that pain is a problem in dogs who don’t want to play with their favorite ball anymore and in cats who won’t jump up to their favorite sunny windowsill. There is more information on recognizing pain in pets at the IVAPM website (ivapm.org), particularly in the pet owner blog section.

If you have a pet who might be in pain, the good news is that the International Veterinary Academy of Pain Management (IVAPM) has declared that September is Animal Pain Awareness Month. The IVAPM campaign is designed to help owners and veterinarians recognize pain in pets so it can be treated. Since identification and treatment of pain is also a primary mission of the Fear Free movement, pet owners can rest assured that the recognition and treatment of pain in their pets will be part of everyday, standardized care as these two organizations work to decrease pain in animals.

Just as in human medicine, doctors can be certified to treat pain. The IVAPM offers training to veterinarians and veterinary nurses for a special pain certification, or Certified Veterinary Pain Practitioner (CVPP). Veterinarians and veterinary nurses can also be certified in Fear Free, which includes pain management as a major component of certification So, for “pet’s” sake, take advantage of the Pain Awareness Month campaign and take your pet to a Fear Free certified CVPP for a discussion on pain and analgesia.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT