A lot of people are going through pain today, but how do you tell if your pet is in pain? Unfortunately, unlike humans, they are unable to speak to us in words, but subtle clues can indicate your pet is uncomfortable.
Changes in behavior should be your indicator to look further at your pet’s mood and actions. Dogs may whine, groan, yelp, whimper or otherwise vocalize. You may also observe changes in their eating and sleeping habits. Some become restless or reluctant to move. If a pet is in a lot of pain, it may even become self-protective and not want to be handled. It may go off and hide.
Cats can also show changes in behavior, such as decreased appetite or lethargy. Some cats will no longer want to jump up or down from furniture, and their desire to chase a toy or light may go away.
A relatively new technique to observe pain in cats uses what is called a “Feline Grimace Scale.” This method teaches us to look at changes in a cat’s facial expressions – how it opens or closes its eyes, how its whiskers appear and how it holds its ears. (See accompanying chart for more about this.)
A pet in pain can have other bodily effects from the pain. There is an increased release of cortisol that can break down tissue faster and cause a suppressed immune system and even decreased hearing. The animal’s heart may race and cause high blood pressure. There may even be increased aggression.
If you see your pet having trouble getting up or down, lagging behind on a walk, wanting less to eat, not wanting to play, or showing signs of aggression, you should contact your veterinarian. Do not try to medicate a pet on your own since many medications can be very harmful to pets.
Your veterinarian will take a history of how your pet is doing at home, and give it a physical exam. Blood tests may be needed to check organ function. Radiographs are usually taken to look for signs of arthritis. Some pets will need some sedation since they may move around too much for clear x-ray evaluation. Radiographic evidence of degenerative joint disease has been found in approximately 90 percent of cats over 12 years of age, but only four percent of their owners noticed any signs of mobility problems.
There are many options to treat pain and arthritis in pets. This includes supplements, medications, physical therapy and even chiropractic and acupuncture treatment. If your veterinarian prescribes non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, your pet should have regular blood and possibly urine tests to make sure these medications can be handled by the body. We never want to try and fix one problem to cause another.
In these trying times, take care of your health, and also be aware of the pain your pets may be in for their own reasons — then take active steps to help.
Dr. Ron Resnick has been in practice for more than 32 years and previously operated two veterinary hospitals. He taught at Harvard University and graduated from Tufts University, considered the best veterinary school in the world. He operates an animal hospital in Simi Valley.