I don’t get this question as often as I should. It seems like, on some level, people don’t want to know their pet is in pain, they just want to assume he’s ok. Outwardly the pet seems fine, so therefore he must be fine. Usually I get statements like “well, he’s not in pain because he’s not crying out or whimpering”, or “he’s just limping, sleeps all the time, and can’t jump into the car anymore, typical old dog stuff”.
Imagine you were rendered mute. You have a splitting headache, but you have no means to convey that your head hurts & you’ve got no way to treat it. You pretty much have two options: you can just accept that your head hurts and try to make the best of things, possibly avoiding things that make it worse, or just curl up and go to sleep and hope it’s gone when you wake up.
That’s pretty much an animal’s life. In the wild, there is not much benefit to being sick or injured. Your pack might turn on you, you might get eaten by something else, you may starve to death. Animals are pretty hard wired to disguise illness and pain for as long as possible, so that they can perform their daily animal functions or they will probably die.
Domesticated dogs vary in their ability and desire to convey pain. Little foo-foo dogs may yelp like their being murdered when you pick them up the wrong way. Conversely, I have seen a goofy lab with a broken leg, bones literally sticking out of his body, just sitting there wagging his tail and giving kisses, like everything was A-OK.
Cats are even more elusive in their ability to display pain. Sometimes it’s as subtle as, the cat normally sleeps curled up in a little ball, but now it sleeps spread out flat, or just quietly lays there, like the Sphinx. They can have resorptive lesions: holes in their teeth that hurt so much that they still flinch, even under full surgical anesthesia. However, they still eat their hard food. They can’t tell you it hurts, they have to eat, so they just try to deal with the pain as best as they can.
Clients often say “he’s just limping, but doesn’t seem to be in pain”. Limping is a way to deal with pain! If it hurts to put the foot down, the pet is modifying his behavior so that it hurts less. Dogs and cats with back or joint pain may or may not limp. Again, they just modify their behavior, they may stop jumping, sleep more, be stiff or have a hard time getting up.
Sometimes we vets can’t tell what hurts either, we may do a therapeutic trial with some pain meds to see how the pet acts. Often the client calls back and says the pet is acting like it is young again! Running, jumping and playing like the good old days.
As recently as the 80’s, veterinarians didn’t have much of a grasp of pain management for their patients. Honestly, until the last 30 years or so, scientists didn’t think animals felt pain like humans do. Researchers discovered that animals do feel pain plenty fine, they just can’t tell us. We veterinarians started just assuming that if it hurts a human, it probably hurts the pet, so let’s manage their pain accordingly. The difference between an animal waking up from surgery in the 80’s with no pain meds on board, and one now, with careful administration of opioids, non-steroidal anti inflammatories, and other methods is pretty stark. Patients are happier, they heal faster, they eat sooner.
Looking at the chart, you’ll notice that by the time the pet is whining, crying, screaming or otherwise vocalizing, it’s likely to be in excruciating pain.
How about we NOT let that be the time you decide that maybe the pet is in pain and should see the vet? There is a lot we can do before that pain becomes unbearable to help improve pets quality of life and happiness.