Is Your Pet in Pain? 

by Dr. Noelle Weeks, Veterinarian, Veterinary Resource Center of the Humane Society of Harrisburg Area


The ability to recognize pain in your pet is actually very difficult for most pet owners.  Extreme and sudden pain can be obvious such as when an animal has a broken leg.  There are countless times when I ask if a pet has pain during a physical exam and the owner responds ‘no because he doesn’t cry’.  The sad truth is our pets rarely cry when they are in pain.  Years ago, I had a dog who I knew had arthritis.  I was treating his pain, I thought.  A new treatment came out; I started him on it.  He started to wag his tail more.  That was the change that indicated I was controlling his pain better, a bigger tail wag.

So how do we know when our pets hurt?  We need to be able to say how our dog or cat normally moves and interacts.   Is your cat hesitating before jumping onto the sofa or your bed?  Is your dog reluctant to go up or down the stairs?  Are they slower to go up the steps?  Has your cat become cranky?  Does your dog circle more before sitting or lying down?  Has your cat stopped grooming?  Is your dog licking his leg?  Is your cat not using the litter box?  Does your dog struggle to get up?  Is your dog having accidents in the house?  We also need to make sure our pets get yearly examinations by a veterinarian, especially as they age.

How does a veterinarian determine if your pet has pain?  The first step is to have an open discussion with you, the owner, to learn what changes, if any, have developed over time.  The veterinarian will also observe the animal in the exam room.  Often, subtle changes in the way the animal stands or moves can be seen.  The vet will then do a thorough examination of all limbs and the spine to see if there are any sensitive or painful areas on palpation or manipulation.  However, dogs and cats don’t always show sensitivity or pain in the exam room due to the stress and fear they may feel while at the vet’s office. 

Sometimes pain medication may be given to see if there is improvement for the pet.  In order for the pet to have certain pain medication it is advisable to have blood work performed to make sure the liver and kidneys can handle the medication.  The most common pain medication for dogs is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug which reduces pain and inflammation.  There are other medications which can also be given.  The veterinarian may also recommend starting glucosamine and chondroitin supplement to support the joints.  There are also more advanced treatment options for some pets as well as physical therapy options.

Remember to look for changes in your pets behavior and to consult your veterinarian with any concerns. 

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