Vet Talk

Taking Pains for your Pet's Happiness

Animals show pain differently than we do

Published: September 24, 2018

The primary goal of biology is to keep the species going. Nature doesn’t care if we are happy, have toys, or shiny teeth. Nature wants animals to eat, survive, and produce offspring to continue the cycle. Pain is one of the key survival tools for animals. Pain says “Hey, that’s hot, get away from the burning forest.” Pain says, “Ouch, don’t bite that; it’ll break your tooth.” Pain says “Hey, this other animal has sharp fangs. Run!”

Human animals interpret pain a bit differently from most of our fellow creatures. Pain says to us, “Gee, I’d better see the dentist.” “I don’t feel so good; I think I’ll spend the day in bed.” “Owwww…My knee is toast; no more running until it’s healed.”

Most humans don’t have to worry about hunting our food – someone will bring us crackers and soup. We don’t have to worry about eating whatever is available no matter how much our mouths hurt. We know we can make a smoothie and a dentist appointment. We can use crutches or stay off the bum knee because we know there isn’t likely to be a large predator stalking us.

Our pets aren’t so lucky. Biology has planted deep roots in their brains and in their responses to pain. After all, what’s the number one goal? Survival.

In order to survive, most animals hide signs of injury or illness. Cats and birds are particularly good actors. No one wants to be the sick-looking zebra when the pride of lions is out there. Even if your mouth is full of rotten teeth, you’re still going to try to munch that kibble as long as possible because biology says “You don’t know when the next meal is coming and this is your only option.”

This means we humans may sometimes miss pretty critical cues from our pets that they are hurting. We think “Well, he’s running around,” or “He’s eating, so it can’t be too bad,” or “He’s still playing with his toys.”

Since our pets won’t tell us directly what they need or when they’re hurting, it’s up to us to be aware of the types and signs of pain.

Chronic vs acute

Pain can be chronic – long term, usually gradual, stuff the patient gets used to over time – or acute – sudden onset, often looks more dramatic or severe. For chronic pain, think about your old football or tennis injury; it’s been there as long as you care to remember, it gets better some days and worse others, and you mostly pop an anti-inflammatory and forget about it until things get really bad. Acute pain is more like the broken wrist or fractured molar; it’s the “Wow! Where did that come from?” pain.

While chronic pain doesn’t always look as bad, anyone with chronic illness or injury can tell you it takes a significant toll on well-being over time.

Location, location, location

When monitoring your pet for signs of pain, it can be helpful to remember that lots of body systems have nerves that send pain signals to the brain. Pain can be:

  • Musculoskeletal – bones, joints, muscles, tendons – fractures, strains, bruises, arthritis, etc.
  • Visceral – coming from internal organs such as heart, lungs, gall bladder, stomach, intestines, urinary tract, even eyes – think UTI, stomach ulcers, gall bladder attack, pneumonia, cancer, etc.
  • Neurologic – sometimes the nervous system sends mixed signals; neurologic pain can come from damaged nerves, neuropathies, and some auto-immune diseases.
  • Dental/oral – mouths hurt, too; oral pain can come from fractured/damaged teeth, gum disease, oral ulcers, or oral foreign bodies like that stick wedged in your dog’s mouth
  • Dermal – don’t overlook skin as a possible source of pain the skin is the body’s first alert system and it’s full of pain receptors – scrapes, burns, punctures, and rashes can all cause pain.

So what does pain in pets look like? Signs can include:

  • loss of appetite
  • decreased activity
  • increased activity – horses in particular may pace or roll excessively when in pain
  • decreased engagement with human and animal friends
  • panting
  • salivation
  • posture changes – may be rigid, hunched, or drooping
  • wide eyes
  • limping/change in gait
  • change in behavior – aggression/irritability
  • whining/moaning/ other vocalization
  • incontinence – may not feel good enough to go outside or to litter box
  • squinting, blinking, tears, eye redness or discharge.

Things you Can Do

When your pet is normal, pay attention to how they behave. How do they move? Do they jump onto things? Fly and/or spread wings and play? Climb? Play games? Seek attention? Come running for food? Knowing what normal looks like helps you spot abnormal more quickly and confidently.

Log changes if something seems gradual. Videos can help.

Report sudden changes — such as eating, drinking, play, and cuddling — to your veterinarian right away. Report any change in birds and small mammals (rodents, rabbits, etc.) right away as they often don't show signs of illness until they're knocking on Death's door.

Remember, old age is not a disease. While animals may slow down a bit as they age, there is no need for them to experience a loss of quality of life. Musculoskeletal pain such as arthritis can be managed with medication, and “accidents” in the house are not normal signs of aging, but often are indications of conditions needing treatment.

Animals show pain differently than we do. Your dog wagging his tail doesn’t mean he isn’t in pain. Some dogs, such as Labrador retrievers, have been known to come bouncing in to the clinic wagging their tails on legs that are severely fractured. If your pet is favoring one leg, don’t assume they are “fine” just because they look happy.

You can help your pet exceed Nature's survival and reproduction goals by helping them live a comfortable life.

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