Recognizing Pain

Pain Management in Animals

“Animals hide pain as a defense mechanism to protect them in the wild.” I have heard this often over the years, from veterinarians and those who love animals. There may be some truth to this statement, we really can’t fully know why animals do what they do, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try to understand them better. It can be challenging to recognize signs of pain and discomfort in our animals, but they are often not intentionally hiding their pain in the comfort of their domestic home environment. A perfect example is the dog that lifts his paw to have his person remove a thorn. We as humans can improve our caregiving abilities by learning the physical and behavioral signs that they display when they are hurting. And honestly, putting ourselves “in their paws” can be a useful technique. Their nervous systems function very much like ours. They feel acute pain and adapt to ongoing pain much as we do. I often ask people who experience chronic pain to consider how many people around them are actually aware of their level of pain – we humans hide our pain as well!

Did you know that animals often make grimacing facial expressions when they are feeling pain? Covered with fur, their faces can be harder to read, but scientists have recognized specific facial features such as squinting eyes, flattened ear position, a “nose bump” where the bridge of the nose would be on a person, and muzzle bulges on their “cheeks” making the whiskers point out further to the sides. These signs can sometimes be seen with anxiety as well, so it is important to take them in context and to watch for them over time. Chronic pain is common in animals just as it is in humans, due to osteoarthritis, some cancers, infections, and injuries.

Animals can show a wide variety of behavioral and physical signs that indicate they may be experiencing pain. Watch closely for changes over time indicating chronic pain, as well as sudden more obvious signs of acute pain. Cats may not jump as high or as gracefully, or may have problems with housesoiling due to pain or discomfort when stepping into the litterbox. Dogs may develop defensive behaviors of growling or snapping when someone approaches if they do not feel they can get out of the way quickly enough. Sometimes dogs or cats can lick areas that are painful causing them to lose hair or develop chronic non-healing wounds on the skin. Many more potential indicators of pain or discomfort are listed in the sidebar.

If you have concerns that your animal may be experiencing pain, a veterinary consultation and diagnostic testing may be needed to identify the cause and develop a treatment plan. Pain management involves a multimodal approach using weight control, exercise and movement, herbal and nutritional supplements, multiple types of physical therapy, and pharmaceutical drugs. As an integrative veterinarian with herbal medicine in my toolkit, I have been very pleased with the improvements in my patients with just a few simple additions to their care.
Contact me for a holistic assessment and see if an individualized herbal pain support formula can help the animals in your life to be more happy, energetic and comfortable.