Until the late 1970s it was generally accepted as scientific fact that animals (and small children) do not feel pain. Of course the idea is not only inaccurate, it is completely ridiculous to just about anyone who has ever interacted with an animal. I think the idea that animals don’t feel pain came about primarily because pain is a very subjective experience, and beings that have no way to verbally communicate what they are feeling can be easily assumed to not be feeling anything at all. The idea also served to sooth the consciences of those who performed barbarically painful procedures on animals in the quest for scientific enlightenment. But even when we acknowledge that animals feel pain it can be tricky to know what is going on with them and what to do about it.
The first problem is to be able to identify the non-verbal cues that our animals give that tell us they are having pain. I frequently have owners tell me that their dog limps on a leg all the time, but she doesn’t cry out or howl, so she doesn’t seem like she is in pain. Whining, crying out, and howling are actually some of the least common signs of pain in animals. Limping, however, says very specifically that that leg hurts every single time it touches the ground, therefore the dog is changing her gait to avoid the pain. If your dog is limping she needs to have the problem identified and she needs pain relief.
Cats are much more subtle about their signs of pain. They are animals that normally seem to sleep about 20 hours a day, so how do you tell if they are hurting? A relaxed and comfortable cat sleeps curled in a circle or stretched out somewhere fairly public so as to maximize the cat hair dispersal in the house and your probability for tripping on them and breaking your neck. A painful cat tends to seek out hiding spots like the closet or under the bed and sleeps in a sternal position with feet pulled under him like he is clenching himself into a tight little package, just wishing the world would go away and leave him alone.
We extrapolate from people about some things that are not so obvious in pets. If you know anyone who has ever had an infected tooth they will tell you that it is some of the worst pain you could imagine, yet I see, on a daily basis, dogs and cats with multiple infected teeth who are still eating and drinking and seemingly acting normally. Fixing a rotten mouth, however, often will make a pet start acting five years younger once the pain is relieved. Surgery is another arena where pain can be assumed. In spite of the fact that a dog will act like nothing happened to her after the day of a spay it is unreasonable to think we can cut a hole in the abdomen and remove internal organs and not have that be painful.
Once we have identified that pain is present we need to act. If the cause of the pain can be corrected that is the first step. Until it is fixed, or when it can’t be eliminated the source of the pain should be treated. Some people worry that if their dog feels better they will use the injured area more and it will make the problem worse, but several good studies have shown that animals that have their pain controlled always recover better than animals that don’t. Using pain to restrict activity is both ineffective and unkind.
We have lots of great treatments and medications that are safe and effective for dogs. Cats are more difficult to medicate because they have unique aspects to their metabolisms that make many common drugs unsafe and others somewhat questionable in their effectiveness. Over the counter pain medications for people fall in the range of unsafe to downright deadly for all of our pets due to metabolic differences in both dogs and cats, so aspirin and Advil only take a few days to start burning a hole in your dog’s stomach, and Tylenol will kill your cat with a single dose. Do not give your pets people medication. Ask your veterinarian and together you can come up with a plan to keep your pets comfortable and healthy.