There’s no absolute way to know whether our pets can feel as deeply as we can. Just as we'll never truly understand whether our conception of the color yellow equals theirs, the sensations they experience will never be fully understood by us.
So we are inclined to anthropomorphize our pets. Which is to say we have to use our human understanding, limited though it may be, to fathom their feelings on the subjects of pain, anxiety, anger, or any other perception, really.
To help us address the nebulous issue of pain in animals, we vets try to attach numbers (as all humans tend to do in any scientific endeavor), to determine how much discomfort is attached to any given procedure or injury. Heart rate, respiration rate, vocalization, etcetera … but the issue gets murkier still when the animal in question is under extreme stress. Or when the pet’s pain comes upon him slowly with advancing age.
We vets have a tough job of determining how best to score a patient’s pain. After all, so much of it is subjective. Cats are notorious for cloaking their pain in a cloud of quiet determination. Dogs silently slink into their beds and slumber peacefully. What’s a responsible vet or owner to do?
As with any occult malady, acceptance of the problem is the biggest hurdle. Unless a vet and/or an owner recognize the signs of pain and/or stress as such, nothing can be done about it. This is the conundrum we face daily (nay, hourly) in our profession, and which an astute owner needs to be well aware of.
Because animals are given to hiding their pain and distress so as not to attract predators (an effective evolutionary adaptation animals are more attuned to), combined with their desire to please, excitement in our immediate presence, and inability to communicate verbally, our pets are more likely to go without our care when it comes to either acute or chronic pain.
Never a day goes by that I don’t advise an owner to think hard on the slowness, hunched back, unwillingness to jump and decreased appetite of their pet. “It’s probably pain,” I say, as I try to impress on them the importance of these symptoms. A trial with pain-relieving drugs is typically recommended as a way to measure discomfort.
And yet so many of my clients argue hard against the use of any drugs. So much so that the non-drug nutraceutical, glucosamine and chondroitin, has become a breadwinner in my practice (when owners choose the convenience of our hospital’s store over the low prices of the online pharmacies). But it shouldn’t be that way. Sometimes drugs have their place, and this is one of them. You wouldn’t say no to a dose of ibuprofen if your kid had a severe headache, right?
Sometimes, our anthropomorphic minds can’t manage to grasp what our pets' animal bodies are telling us. Pain is the one thing we all say we can’t abide in our pets. But it won’t go away just because we don’t see it or believe in it. It takes trust in medicine and an open mind to accept that they may feel what we feel - without all the wincing, complaining and whining that we humans are likely to do.
These are just my thoughts on the topic ... I would love to hear yours too.
Dr. Patty Khuly