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Pain Management for Pets

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Decades ago in veterinary medicine, pain was thought to be good for an injured or sick animal. This wasn’t because veterinarians were cruel or wanted pets to suffer; they believed that pain helped keep animals sufficiently quiet in order to heal. Plus, it was thought that there really wasn’t any way to know whether a pet was feeling pain or needed some relief. Today it’s just the opposite: veterinarians now believe they should treat for pain until there is proof that an animal isn’t hurting.

Why it’s important to manage your pet’s pain?

Pain management has become an important issue in veterinary medicine. AAHA along with the American Association of Feline Practitioners recently released the AAHA/AAFP Pain Management Guidelines for Dogs and Cats . These guidelines show that pain management will improve the recovery process, whether from illness, surgery or injury. Best of all, because it reduces stress and increases a sense of well being, pain management may even help your furry friend live longer.

Different kinds of pain

Acute pain comes on suddenly as a result of an injury, surgery, inflammation or infection. It can be extremely uncomfortable for your pet and it may limit her mobility. The good news is that it’s usually temporary. It generally goes away when the condition that causes it is treated.

Chronic pain is long lasting and usually slow to develop. Some of the more common sources of chronic pain are age-related disorders such as arthritis, but it can also result from illnesses such as cancer or bone disease. This pain may be the hardest to deal with, because it can go on for years, or for an animal’s entire lifetime. Also, because it develops slowly, some animals may gradually learn to tolerate the pain and live with it. This can make chronic pain difficult to detect.

How to know when your pet is hurting?

When we have pain, we complain. However, animals instinctually hide pain so we generally don’t hear a peep out of our pets until the pain is so bad they cannot hide it anymore. So how do you know when your pet’s in pain?

Because our furry friends aren’t able to tell us when something is wrong, it’s important for you, the owner, to take note of any change in their behavior. Look for any of the following signs they may be your pet’s way of saying "I hurt."

  • Being unusually quiet, listless, restless, or unresponsive
  • Whining, whimpering, howling, or constantly meowing
  • Biting
  • Constantly licking or chewing at a particular part of the body
  • Acting funny and out of character, either aggressively or submissively
  • Flattening ears against the head Having trouble sleeping or eating
  • Seeking a lot more affection than usual
  • Unable to get comfortable (constantly changes positions to find the most comfortable position)

If you suspect your pet might be hurting, consult your veterinarian for help. Your veterinarian will help you figure out the problem and discuss the available options. Be prepared to answer questions about your pet’s behavior, activity level and tolerance for being handled. Your furry friend’s mobility is also a crucial topic. Does Rover now have a hard time getting up or walking up/down stairs (these were never a problem before)? Does Fluffy no longer jump up on to the furniture or have a hard time hopping back down?

Many animals, especially cats, naturally disguise signs of pain to protect themselves from predators. However, the lack of obvious signs does not mean they aren’t experiencing pain. If the injury, illness or experience is one that sounds painful to you, go with the assumption that it may also hurt your pet and get to your veterinarian.

What can you do to help?

First and foremost, a complete physical exam by your veterinarian is essential. An exam may include lab and blood tests, X-rays, etc. Veterinarians will recommend a treatment protocol. Ask your veterinarian about simple things you can do at home to help keep your pet comfortable and to monitor whether her pain level is changing.

Massaging your pet from head to toe will help relax and soothe him. This organized form of petting is a great way to bond with your buddy as well as to notice any unusual bumps, scrapes or bruises on the body. It is important that you are gentle and do not apply pressure over the spinal area. If you pet shows any signs of discomfort discontinue massage immediately and seek veterinary advice.

  • Watch for changes in how your pet responds to exercise. If he’s acting sluggish, you may need to reduce his activity or it may mean that chronic pain is developing. His ability to exercise will depend on his health, make sure he has a thorough veterinary physical before he starts a new exercise program. 
  • Watch his diet. Carefully monitor your pet’s diet to ensure he is not adding unneeded pounds. Maintaining a healthy diet will improve your pet’s pain level by managing his weight, regularity and physical health. Depending on your pet’s condition, he may need a special diet. Consult your veterinarian before you make any dietary changes.

Treatment choices and considerations

There is a variety of pain medications currently available for pets. Aside from pill form, many drugs come in easily administered forms such as liquids, skin patches or gels. There are also new analgesic (pain-reducing) products to help treat your pet after an injurious trauma or to help treat chronic pain. Traditionally, steroids have been used for anti-inflammatory purposes and to decrease pain. Although effective, steroids generally aren’t used for prolonged periods, they can have adverse side effects (strictly adhering to your veterinarian’s instructions is important).

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) are often used to treat orthopedic-related pain with fewer side effects. There are several other classes of pain medications and it is important that you talk to your veterinarian about the different medications so that together you can find the best treatment plan for your pet.


In addition to pharmaceutical treatment, complementary (or alternative) options are becoming more available. Acupuncture, homeopathy, holistic medicine and even aromatherapy are being practiced on animals. Your veterinarian can help you decide whether complementary medicine would be beneficial for your pet.It is very important that you do not give your pet any medication without consulting your veterinarian. Certain painkillers, including acetaminophen (found in Tylenol) or combinations of medications can be toxic to pets in very small doses.

Whether your choice is complementary or traditional medical practices, consider the side effects and the time for each treatment option. Your veterinarian will be able to tell you about the costs, benefits and risks of the various treatment options.

After surgery

Pain management becomes particularly important after surgeries. When recovering from invasive procedures, animals may be not only in pain, but also weak and disoriented. When you’re finally able to bring home that precious pet of yours after a procedure, the best thing you can do is consistently follow your veterinarian’s instructions carefully. If your veterinarian prescribes an analgesic for your pet, give it to him as directed. If any problems should develop, contact your veterinarian immediately.

Have a comfortable, warm bed accessible to help your friend rest. Keep your pet quiet and relaxed so that he has time to heal without further injuring himself. Also, keep Spot or Fluffy from picking at his stitches (often a special collar will be recommended to prevent this from happening). Be attentive and loving. The comfort of your attention and affection may be just what the doctor ordered.

As with any medical condition, your veterinarian is your best ally in identifying and managing your pet’s pain. Pain management requires a team effort in order to have a happier and healthier companion.

  • Pain Management for Pets