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What You Need to Know About Treating Your Pet's Pain

Watch for the tell-tale signs that your four-legged friend is suffering.

Border Collie Sheepdog in the Grass
Photography by: Mika Mika / Getty Images

Most pet owners would agree that nothing hurts worse than seeing your pet cat in pain. I know that pain firsthand: My cat had an ulcer on her upper lip as a complication from being an outdoor cat for so long. I had adopted her, brought her indoors, and took her to the veterinarian to get checked out and updated on her vaccines. Her previous owners must have dumped her in the area and left her to fend for herself, and she was scrawny from malnourishment, her fur brittle and thinned out. But the first vet couldn't figure out why she had the ulcer and treated her with some antibiotics and pain medicines. Eventually, I found a vet who thought that my girl had a beef and poultry allergy. I already fed the cats grain-free food because her son, one of the kittens she birthed in my backyard, had a sensitive stomach. So, I switched the food again and her ulcer went completely away and never came back. My little girl had been living with a painful oral ulcer for who knows how long until I brought her into my home and found the right vet.

 

In order to avoid this situation, it's important to both recognize the signs that your pet is in pain and to understand how to treat them. Here, we break down both of these points.

 

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Signs of Pain

Animals feel pain just like we do. Unlike humans, though, they can't always communicate where they feel pain or what might have caused it. Some animals will hide from their caretakers when in pain or growl and hiss at being touched. "It's trickier to diagnose animal pain," says Dr. Melissa Smith, a Staff Doctor who is Board-Certified in Anesthesia & Pain Medicine at NYC's Animal Medical Center. "Animals are generally non-verbal, and they can't tell us where it hurts. You can see a behavior change in them—maybe your dog has a reluctance to climbing the stairs or an appetite change if the pain is oral."

 

The behavior changes that she refers to can be very complex. Dr. Smith says that animals can become snappier and may guard the areas that hurt. Does your pet seem to shy away from your touch in a certain area? Are they holding a paw closer to themselves or limping to avoid putting weight on it? Watch for a change in your pet's normal behavior such as adjusted posture, lethargy, and a decreased appetite (or, in the case of cats, decreased grooming). These are tell-tale signs of pain that can indicate to pet parents that something is wrong and the animal may be in pain.

 

Making a Diagnosis

"When it comes to treating your pet's pain, it is treated similarly to humans," says Dr. Smith. The veterinarian will perform an exam and run any necessary tests to determine the location and the cause of the pain. Treatment, of course, depends on the type of pain. "Animals may be prescribed NSAIDS or opioids. Sometimes, surgery is needed to treat the underlying cause of the pain. For terminal pain, your pet may undergo radiation therapy." Pets may also benefit from physical rehabilitation like underwater treadmills. For chronic pain, consult with your vet to design an ongoing treatment plan that may include rehabilitation, medication, and lifestyle adjustments.

 

Adjusting at Home

At home, pet parents can make adjustments to the living environment to accommodate their furry companion. For instance, Dr. Smith tells us about elderly chihuahuas that needed little staircases so that they could get onto the bed and a labrador dog that had a ramp for getting in and out of the owner's van. "If it hurts your animal to bend down low to drink, you can adjust the water bowl height so that they are more comfortable," Dr. Smith says. "There are little things around the house that you can do to ease your pet's pain." Stop and think about your pet's daily lifestyle and what actions or movements could cause pain. A healthy balance of controlled exercise and weight management help to decrease joint stress and improve muscular support. Keep easy access to litter boxes, raised feeding bowls, soft bedding, and nonslip floor surfaces.  Consider implementing baby gates to modify access to the stairs or the outdoors (especially in hot or cold weather).

 

Our animals need us to be there for them. When they are suffering, we should do what we can to make them feel better. Always seek the advice of a veterinarian and follow the treatment plan that is prescribed. Dr. Smith also advises paying attention to any changes in your pet's behavior, even after starting treatment. If the treatment doesn't seem to be working, ask your veterinarian for a new treatment plan.