Though misconceptions have abounded over the years, it’s clear today that animals (including our beloved pets) are capable of feeling pain. Since animals can’t describe their pain in words, it’s especially important for pet owners to pay attention to what their pets are “saying” through body language and other potentially subtle signs of distress.
The importance of feeling pain
Pain is a term that describes sensations in the body, either localized or general, that make us uncomfortable. These range from vaguely annoying to debilitating. Pain is highly subjective and people respond to it in different ways with some of us having a much higher tolerance for pain than others. As unpleasant as it is, pain is a vital mechanism in evolution as it enhances the chances of survival. Pain is actually a messenger: It tells us that there’s a problem and that we need to take care of it. Acute, sudden pain is necessary in terms of survival and signals a threat to the animal. However, pain that is ongoing does not usually have any beneficial effect and needs to be treated. The longer our pets live and the more we can do for their medical care, the more important it becomes for us to recognise and treat any pain that they may experience.
Different types of pain
Experts recognize five different types of pain and it is now generally accepted that animals feel these types of pain as well.
A sudden pain, common to injuries like scrapes and burns, illnesses like Strep throat, and temporary health concerns like an upset stomach. Acute pain may also present itself following a medical procedure like an injection or dental work.
An ongoing pain that can be unrelenting or sporadic and may be caused by diseases such as Arthritis or Cancer. Sometimes there is no obvious explanation for chronic pain and doctors struggle for months or years to arrive at a diagnosis. Some chronic pain thwarts diagnosis throughout a patient’s life, limiting treatment to pain management.
This type of pain arises from tissue damage caused by fractures, sprains, burns, Osteoporosis, or Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). It is a kind of acute pain and may be throbbing or sharp.
This pain results from nerve damage and is present in conditions such as Multiple Sclerosis, Shingles, or spinal disc injuries. It is usually chronic.
Sometimes pain occurs without any obvious injury or damage to the body.
Did you know?
Pets attempt to hide their pain as a result of their untamed lineage. In the wild, an injured animal is an easy target. Despite years of domestication, dogs and cats are still likely to keep injuries and illnesses to themselves as best they can.
The experience of pain in animals
Throughout much of history, animals were commonly used in scientific experiments without any regard for the fact they may experience pain and discomfort. Over the last several decades, however, there has been much debate around an animal’s capacity to feel pain. Veterinarians have become increasingly aware that when a dog or cat is given pain management treatments with anesthetics and analgesia their tolerance of procedures and recovery from them is much improved over animals who receive no pain relief.
Mammals share the same nervous system, neurochemicals, perceptions, and emotions, all of which are integrated into the experience of pain. Whether mammals feel pain like we do is unknown, but that doesn’t mean they don’t experience it. It is well known, for example, that dogs suffer phantom limb pains after having their legs amputated following car accidents. Owners report pets waking up from sleep with a cry, suddenly looking in the direction of legs that are no longer there. They seem to be suffering from the strange but very real phantom limb pain that human amputees experience.
Why it’s important to treat pain?
While pain has its obvious and sometimes devastating downside, our ability to feel physical pain is also part of maintaining their health. For a time, physicians even referred to pain as “the fifth vital sign,” because it can be important to understanding the state of a person or pet’s health and point to the presence of disease. When our pain receptors are working effectively, pain is a useful way for our bodies to tell our brains when a stimulus is a threat to our overall well-being. However, sometimes pain stops playing a protective role and becomes a stressor, like in the case of chronic pain. In that case, the body releases stress-related hormones that affect every system in the body. Neurological responses and metabolic rates change, appetite is depressed, sleep becomes difficult, and exhaustion sets in. If the situation continues and body tissue starts to break down, irreparable damage can be done to the vital organs. When owners and vets recognize the signs of acute and chronic pain, they can take the appropriate pain relief measures to speed up their recovery process, whether it’s from illness, surgery or injury. Treating your pet’s pain will relieve them of stress, increase their well-being, and help them live a longer, healthier life.
Why do pets hide their pain?
Pets are often quite adept at hiding signs of pain and distress. It’s all part of the evolutionary process and would’ve helped your pet survive in the wild. Sick and injured animals make especially easy targets for opportunistic predators. Even though dogs and cats have been domesticated for centuries, this survival instinct is still deeply embedded. Our domestication of animals may have even helped reinforce this behavior. Dogs love to greet owners with enthusiasm, so much so that they’ll make it tough to spot symptoms.
How do I know if my cat or dog is in pain?
Recognizing when your pet is in pain is vital for their long-term health and comfort. Both cats and dogs are very good at hiding pain, but felines are often especially good at subverting their owners’ efforts to make a diagnosis.
Signs of pain in dogs.
- Aggressiveness (especially when being touched at specific areas)
- Loud cry
- Hiding and avoidance
- Stiffness or resistance to movement
- Unusual gait or body language
- Panting or shallow breathing
- Enlarged pupils
Signs of pain in cats.
- Aggressiveness (especially when being touched in specific areas)
- Hiding away and avoidance
- fidgeting as if unable to find a comfortable position
- Inability to jump like they used to
- Changes in posture, gait, or body language
- Excessive licking
- Changes in sleeping behavior
- Constipation or defecating outside the litter box
- Excessive thirst or loss of thirst
- Decreased appetite
Do dogs understand when we’re in pain?
Dogs are attuned to their people. Some breeds of dogs have up to 50 times more scent receptors than we do. This gives them a staggeringly impressive sense of smell, sometimes strong enough to sniff out signs of illness. Dogs can also sense when their owner is feeling emotionally low or mentally distressed. They may even try to help out by snuggling up for a cuddle or sneaking in an extra lick or two.
Studies show that dogs have a complex way of understanding human emotions. They extract and integrate bimodal sensory emotional information, allowing them to distinguish between our positive and negative emotions. In simple terms, this means their senses work together to collate information about our moods. They really do understand what we’re feeling. That’s part of why some dogs make such great therapy and service animals. They’re not just good at reading humans, but can also sense emotional pain in other dogs in their homes.
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