Pain Awareness in our Pets

All creatures in the world deserve a life free from fear and pain. Humans can be very expressive about pain, but our pets are not always as capable of expressing pain. It is important to know and understand the signs of pain in our pets so that we can get them to a vet as soon as possible for treatment.

Dr. Gina Dinallo

We asked Dr. Gina Dinallo (BSc, DVM), who is part of our emergency and critical care team at BBVSH, to share her tips with us for recognizing animal pain.

What does pain look like in our dogs and cats?

Sometimes it’s obvious.  A dog crying or howling.  A cat vocalizing.  A wound that makes us shudder. Those instances of pain most of us recognize immediately.  But how many of our pets may be in pain without us realizing?  Their instinct is to survive, and displaying weakness can mean death in the wild.  Masking pain is safer.  So, it is our job to recognize those changes in our pets to help keep them comfortable and maintain the best quality of life.

How can you tell if a pet that is wagging its tail or purring in greeting is hurting?

Oral pain

  • Changes in eating or drinking. Many animals will continue to eat and drink through significant dental disease. They will try to shift food to the least painful part of their mouths to crunch and chew. Visible difficulty eating and prehending food, or truly stopping eating, is a late-stage sign.
  • Signs of dental disease. Earlier signs of dental pain are signs of dental disease.  Are your dog or cat’s gums very red along the teeth instead of a bubble gum pink? Can you see more of the tooth (the roots) than you remember? Is there a lot of calculus–big grey-green plaques of material that can accumulate on the tooth surface? This last sign may be noted with very bad breath.
  • Cracked or fractured teeth. Other signs of possible tooth pain include cracked or fractured teeth. Even severe enough wear–like the 10-year-old border collie that has been a tennis ball fanatic its whole life and now has teeth that are flat like a horse–can cause pain if the pulp is exposed.

What to do for oral pain? Patients with these signs may experience significant pain relief from a periodontal treatment and potentially extractions of severely unhealthy or damaged teeth. This can be pursued through a veterinary dentist or with your primary veterinarian.

Joint pain

  • Arthritis. Arthritis is extremely common. Tearing the doggy “ACL” will lead to arthritis in the knee.  Large breed dogs are commonly affected by hip or elbow dysplasia.  The kneecap popping out of place is a common issue in toy breed dogs.  Shoulder arthritis may affect dogs that have been particularly active throughout their lives.
  • Back pain. Let’s not forget the back!  Degeneration can occur anywhere along the vertebrae.
  • Felines. Cats are often overlooked in terms of joint health because they are so agile and compensate well, but they can develop these painful conditions as well.  Any animal with previous trauma can develop pain in that area later in life.
  • Limping or lameness. The most obvious symptoms are limping – whether that is completely holding the limb up and failing to use it, the classic head bob as the animal tries to bear weight on the affected limb but hops off it quickly, or a “hitch” in the gait that is only seen with certain activities.  These are all manifestations of pain.  With rare exceptions, dogs and cats will use their legs normally if they are comfortable. Lameness is pain. 
  • Reluctance to play or do activities. More subtle changes are important to note as well. In some animals this is displayed as reluctance to do certain activities. A running partner who doesn’t jump up excitedly when you grab their leash. An animal that reliably shifts their weight and leans slightly to one side when standing still– known as “off-loading”. A simple decrease in activity. Hesitancy to climb stairs or jump into cars or on furniture. These may all indicate pain.

How do you treat pain in pets?

Once we know that there is pain, what can we do about it?

  • Minimize the development of pain in the first place. Keep our pets in lean condition and avoid obesity as it strains every joint.
  • Joint supplements and omega 3’s are also an option (various choices including Cosequin, Dasuquin, fish oil, and others are available). Please seek the advice of your vet before using these kinds of supplements.
  • Do NOT use human medicine. It is very important never to give human pain medication to your dog or cat as medications that are safe for people can be toxic to animals.
  • Other veterinary medication options that may be of help to your pet include:
    • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (veterinary NSAIDs)
    • Gabapentin
    • NMDA antagonists (amantadine, ketamine)
    • Acupuncture
    • Massage and laser therapy
    • Physical therapy modalities including underwater treadmill sessions
    • Various intermittent injectable therapies to interfere with the development of inflammation
    • And more….Please talk to your vet about the many options that are available.

Some last thoughts about pet pain

If you are concerned that your pet may be experiencing pain and want to learn about options to keep them from hurting, talk to your veterinarian. Care and management generally starts with your primary veterinarian but may involve the aid of specialists.

At Boundary Bay Veterinary Specialty Hospital, our team can help. For example, our board-certified veterinary surgeons specialize in orthopedic conditions, and our animal rehabilitation specialists can make a huge difference in recovery from injury or management of chronic pain.

In some cases, you may have need of our emergency department and critical care team for the management of sudden worsening or severe pain.  We hope you never need an emergency vet, but if you do, we are open 24/7, walk-ins welcome. We are VECCS Level 1 certified and capable of handling even the most critical, life-threatening emergencies and trauma, with specialists on call to handle any medical issue. Find out more about when to visit the emergency room and how to contact us on our emergencies page.

At Boundary Bay, our goal is to prevent patient pain and suffering, and maximize your pet’s quality of life with you.  We will be happy to help any time your pet is in need.



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