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PET TALK: Pain management for dogs and cats

Wednesday 17 August 2022 | Written by Supplied | Published in Opinion, Pet Talk

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PET TALK: Pain management for dogs and cats
Photo: GETTY IMAGES

It can be the easiest thing to notice at the extreme. Whimpering, screaming, howling. Or it can be the opposite. Silent, depressed, guarded, aggressive. And because it is so out of character, it stands out, writes Dr Michael Baer of Te Are Manu Vet Clinic.

Cat or dog, agony is agony but pain is a spectrum. We know that. The pain of a splinter in your finger is not the same as a broken leg. And there is nothing worse than a paper cut, except just about everything. And for most of the spectrum friends, neighbours, and passersby have no clue that you are in any discomfort, unless you tell them.

And we often do – “My foot/hip/back/hand/head/ear/tooth/neck/shoulder hurts”.  We receive sympathy and consideration in response, and treatment. But first we have to tell them.

Dogs and cats can’t tell us. And for most of the pain spectrum we struggle to notice the subtle cues. Bobby sits with both legs straight out in front of him, not with his feet tucked up. Kuri sits on one side, with her right leg straight, always.  Aren’t they funny the way they get into that position? No. They have painful knees. Ginger takes a couple of false jumps before getting up on your lap, and will avoid coming in the back door up the stairs. He much prefers to walk around the house up the gentle slope of the garden. His back hurts. Taki is drooling. Toothache.

Arthritis is common in older animals and as the joints get damaged, pets exercise less, and gain weight. Obesity is as much a problem for dog and cat health as for human health. And for joint health. As old, arthritic, fat dogs and cats move around, their damaged joints carry more and more weight and deteriorate more and more. The arthritis gets worse. So, they move less and get fatter. The hips, knees and shoulders suffer, and the elbows and wrists. Cats struggle to keep their coats groomed. Dogs get grumpy. They are slow to stand, and seem stiff when they do. These are all signs of pain, constant and gnawing.  But these signs of pain can develop gradually, and so we think of them as “normal”.  They aren’t. Just as we would take pain killers, so can our pets.

Teeth are amazing tools, the hardest structure in the body. But they are also a common cause of discomfort. Broken teeth hurt; they feel like they are on fire with every breath. Plaque and tartar build up causing swollen and bleeding gums. The gums scar and the bone around the teeth dissolves, never to be replaced. Cavities and root abscesses follow. Toothache is horrible. Dental pain in dogs and cats is just as intense, but the signs we see often are not.

Pets usually eat normally, until the pain is extreme. They might not like having their mouth opened, but how often do we do that anyway? They may drool a bit, or they may not.  They may eat on one side only. It is hard to know, but easy to believe that they will be sensitive to hot and cold food. Pain killers, and cleaning teeth help, and sometimes broken and infected teeth need to be removed.

We all know when pain is obvious, but sudden, severe pain is only one part of the spectrum. Lower grade, grumbling pain can be debilitating. Arthritis and dental pain are common, but pets suffer from all the usual strains and stumbles and aches that afflict us. Watching closely can let you know if they need your help to stop the ache.