For many of us our pets are not just companion animals but bona fide members of our family, whose wellbeing we regard as a top priority. That’s why the notion that a beloved animal can be suffering from chronic pain, without the ability to tell us what’s wrong, is so disturbing. The reality is that dogs, cats and other pets suffer greatly from pain – whether it’s pain associated with injury, surgery or illness — and identifying and treating the pain is key to their quality of life.
Pain behaviors are different in every species, and can be specific to each individual. Additionally, dogs and cats go to great lengths to hide their pain as part of their evolutionary past — when demonstrating that they were in pain could make them vulnerable to attack from other animals. People expect animals to cry or vocalize when in pain, but they usually only do this with severe acute pain, like breaking a bone. Pets are generally quiet and stoic when in pain.
In order to diagnose pain in patients who cannot “tell” us what they’re feeling, today’s veterinary specialists have to resort to indirect methods of pain assessment. These methods rely on noting changes in functional movements (i.e. “my dog can’t jump on the bed anymore”). And sometimes we have to assume pain is present when we diagnose a disease and treat for the expected level of pain.