Pain in Animals, Pt. 2: What They Are (and Aren’t) Telling You
Humans can verbalize when they hurt. We love to do this. We can wallow in it. We reminisce about how great things were when things didn’t hurt. We take pills and go to doctors who specialize in treating pain. It can become an all encompassing force controlling our lives.
We can moan and groan and complain all we want, though. Dogs and cats, as I mentioned last week, can’t.
The pain can be all encompassing for them too, but they can’t say a word about it. I think a big difference between animals and humans is that animals don’t generally sit there wallowing and moaning about the horrible impact pain has had on their lives. They do their best to just deal with it and move on. I think it’s why dogs and cats recover from ovariohysterectomies in 2-5 days as opposed to six weeks in humans.
They feel pain; they have all the same nerves that we do. But more than that, I think they do two things: they hide the pain, and they don’t think about it as much. I think there is a mind+body influence here.
I haven’t had a hysterectomy so I’m flying blind here, but from what I understand, we’re basically told to expect six weeks of recovery and discomfort. The mind is told one thing, the body responds accordingly: Therefore we experience six weeks of recovery and discomfort.
What if we didn’t know any better?
Let’s say a dog or cat has a hysterectomy. They wake up, sore and painful and (I think) say to themselves: "Ouch, this hurts! I’m going to modify my behavior so it hurts less. I’m going to not move much, because moving hurts. I may be a little bit more cranky. I may even go off food for a day or two. But I’m going to do the best that I can go get better ASAP. I’ve got stuff to do."
As vets, we treat them for the pain we know they are feeling based on studies, physiology, and recovery rates. Animals that get post-op pain control (regardless of how they act) heal faster, eat sooner and feel better than those who don’t.
Back in the wild, wolf pack days, a sick, painful dog didn’t do well. They might be taken down or left behind. Weakness was a bad thing. You can’t hunt if you’re lying around moaning about how horrible your life is. You have to pick up and move on, mask the pain or die.
The point is, animals in mild to moderate pain do not lie around crying and screaming. They modify their behavior. They hide their pain. So when you tell me your old dog isn’t doing things he used to do, I can’t help but wonder if he’s hurting.
I gently quiz the client about the dog, and sometimes I recommend X-rays. Or I may notice creaky joints on the physical exam. I'm looking for something to tip me off to the presence of arthritis or other discomfort.
Otherwise, I may take the stealth approach.
If I feel like there’s a good chance the pet is in pain, I might suggest a "trial" of pain medicine. Give a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory daily for a week or so. See if the pet’s behavior changes. If you take them out of the pain, they may resume some of the things they’d stopped doing. I love the "he’s acting like a puppy again" calls.
I’m not trying to get the dog hooked on drugs, I’m just trying to establish that he’s in pain and that we need to do something about it. Once we know it’s there, we can talk about how to manage it: supplements, weight loss, acupuncture, long term pain medication, etc.
With any luck, that old dog just might act a little less "old."
Dr. Vivian Cardoso-Caroll