No pet parent likes to see their animal in pain. But preventing and managing pain in dogs and cats can be tricky, so it’s important to make sure you and your clients are on the same page when it comes to their pet’s needs.
Obviously the earlier a dog’s or cat’s pain is recognized, either by the pet owner or by veterinary staff, the better – the sooner the pain can be treated and the less likely the animal is to have lasting damage. However, pet owners may not fully understand how their dog or cat shows pain. They’re often aware of more obvious signs: limping, whining, flinching or pulling away from touch, unusual snapping or aggressive behavior, and decreased activity levels and appetite. But many pet owners won’t know to look for subtler signs of pain in dogs and cats: squinting or rubbing their head due to a headache, standing up on their front legs first due to pain in their hindquarters (often caused by arthritis or hip dysplasia), hesitating to walk on hardwood floors or other slippery surfaces due to leg pain, having housetraining accidents (urinating or pooping in the house) due to urinary tract infections, changing their grooming habits (specifically for cats), etc.
Many people also commonly assume that pain just comes with the territory as pets age, but pain in older pets should be taken just as seriously and can be managed just as effectively. Talk to your clients with senior dogs and cats, and let them know that getting older doesn’t have to hurt!
In 2015, the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) and the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) came out with updated pain management guidelines for dogs and cats. These guidelines emphasize the need for an individualized, team-oriented approach to pain in pets that includes veterinarians, veterinary staff, and owners. What these guidelines translate into for you and your practice is a focus on the individual animal and an emphasis on clear, effective communication with pet owners.
Pain management plans can include both drug and non-drug therapies. Common drug therapies for pain in pets include opioids, local anesthetics, short-term use of NSAIDs, and adjunctive drugs or sedatives like ketamine. Non-drug therapies are becoming more commonly emphasized to help animals recover from pain and include rehabilitation therapies, such as exercises and pet massage or acupressure, and changes to the pet’s environment, such as installing ramps or steps or raising food and water bowls.
One of the most important parts of any pain management plan is the owner’s involvement, so make sure your clients understand the plan for their pet and are engaged in managing and treating their pet’s pain.
The AAHA makes an excellent handout about signs of pain in dogs that you may want to post in your office or give to your clients to read. In addition, Colorado State University provides canine and feline pain scales that can be used to help pet owners and veterinary staff better “read” an animal’s body language to identify their level of acute pain. The use of such pain scales, including the Glasgow Composite Measure Pain Scale for dogs and the Multidimensional Composite Pain Scale for postoperative pain in cats, can help assess changes in an animal’s pain over time or responses to pain treatment.