Pain is easily expressed by humans. We can give the specifics of pain, such as where it hurts and what has caused the pain. We can let others know if the pain is insignificant and temporary or occurring long term at a greater level.
On the other hand, our pets can't verbally tell us this information. It would make it much easier if we spoke “dog” or they spoke “human” but, alas, that's not the case. For that reason, we have to be investigators and watchful.
Pain can be broken into two types: acute and chronic. Dr. Jessica Vogelsang explains, “Acute pain — that sharp, blast in the face or sudden hurt — comes quickly and, usually, hopefully, also departs quickly. Chronic pain is any pain that persists past the normal expected point of inflammation and healing. While that is a somewhat simplistic explanation, it's important to understand that pain is a very complicated phenomenon that involves many different pathways: the initial pain picked up in the periphery by a noxious stimuli, the part of the brain that recognizes the stimulus as pain, and the various places along the way where it can get tripped up, triggered, or amplified.”
With new studies and medical knowledge, the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) and American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) have collaborated on adding and updating methods of pain management for our pets, incorporating it into the Pain Management Guidelines for Dogs and Cats [PDF] used by animal health care doctors and staff. An important addition is being able to assess pain through behavioral differences.
Like us, our pets may not always vocally announce pain, especially the chronic kind, but they will show us through behavior. A dog that no longer jumps on the bed may be experiencing arthritis or a dog that is licking itself repeatedly may have an infection in that area. Our pets' health care has changed as new information is obtained. We used to believe they can handle it; we now know and it is finally accepted that they need help managing pain as we do.
Dogs and cats are creatures of habit. Small changes, especially with cats, can be the key to letting you know that they have some type of pain. Paying heed and questioning it can help you determine whether or not they need a visit to the vet and can help determine what route to take to reduce it.
Pain management involves more than simply giving your pet painkillers. Other treatments should be used to help reduce and manage it, such as cold compression, weight optimization and therapeutic exercise. These are already a part of the health care recommended to our pets, but other treatments are becoming more accepted and used. Acupuncture and therapeutic laser may soon be a part of the mainstream solution.
When caring for our pets, we should remember that they are very similar to ourselves. They feel pain whether or not they express it in a blatantly obvious way. And we have the knowledge and tools to provide them with care that helps to reduce or remove it completely.
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