When your beloved pet is in obvious pain, you would not think twice about bringing him in for evaluation and treatment as soon as possible. For example, if your pet has orthopedic pain, such as arthritis or hip dysplasia, with obvious signs like limping, exercise intolerance, and trouble getting up from a resting position, you’d be sure to schedule a physical exam with our team. 

However, orthopedic pain—including arthritis or hip dysplasia—may also present with much subtler signs. Perhaps your dog sits in a different position, or perhaps your cat has stopped using the litter box because it hurts to step over the ledge. Every day, we see patients who are in pain, whose owners didn’t know. 

Your pet’s instincts tell him he needs to hide his pain and illness, lest he be preyed upon. This is particularly true for cats and birds. The weakest animals are the first to be hunted, according to nature, so our companion animals put on a brave front. 

Acute versus chronic pain in pets

Pain falls into two categories: acute and chronic. Acute pain occurs suddenly; for example, pain from a broken bone or traumatic injury, or from a sudden-onset illness, such as appendicitis.

Chronic pain has been present for a long time; for example, pain from old injuries that flare up from time to time, osteoarthritis, and urinary conditions, such as feline idiopathic cystitis. Chronic pain persists beyond the expected healing process, with no clear end point, and can be considered a disease state. While your pet can adapt to chronic pain over time until it appears less severe than acute pain, continuous pain does take a toll on his overall quality of life. 

Because animals adapt or “deal with” chronic pain, the signs can be subtle. However, chronic pain is still pain, and should be treated. Owners often believe that although their pet is limping, he’s not in pain, but do people limp when they aren’t in pain? 

The pain that accompanies dental disease is another example of chronic pain. Eighty-five percent of dogs and cats over the age of 3 years suffer with dental disease, including periodontal disease, tooth root abscesses, gingivitis, and feline odontoclastic resorptive lesions (FORLs). With the exception of FORLs, these conditions are known to be painful because humans experience them, too. For example, anyone who’s had a tooth root abscess knows that the pain is almost unbearable. Similarly, cats with FORLs have such sensitivity that they chatter their teeth when the lesions are stimulated while they are fully anesthetized. 

Yet, despite their own experiences with dental disease and pain, some owners do not accept that their pets are in pain because they have not stopped eating. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. The owners may not realize that their pet may be eating on only one side of his mouth, or eating more slowly, which eventually will impact his health.  

Spotting a pet’s subtle pain signs

Be on the lookout, especially in senior pets, for subtle signs of chronic pain, which include:

  • Decreased appetite
  • Panting
  • Restlessness
  • Drooling
  • Withdrawing from social activities with family members and other people
  • Changes in posture
  • Changes in gait 
  • Irritability
  • Panting
  • Nervousness
  • Shivering or shaking
  • Aggression, especially when handled
  • Whining 
  • Urinary or fecal accidents in the house

Diagnosing and treating pets in pain

If you suspect your pet is in pain, you should call us to schedule a physical exam. Once we’ve narrowed down the potential source of pain, if necessary, we can perform additional diagnostics, such as radiographs, ultrasounds, and lab work, to make a final diagnosis. Then, we will formulate a treatment plan that will alleviate your pet’s pain. 

Never treat your pet at home with human over-the-counter pain relievers (i.e., ibuprofen [Motrin, Advil]) or acetaminophen [Tylenol]), which are toxic to companion animals. Always call our hospital before giving your pet any medication that your veterinarian has not prescribed or approved to ensure the medication is safe for pets.

If you notice that something’s a little off with your furry family member, chronic pain may be the cause. Give us a call so we can help your pet rest a little easier.