Managing Pain In Our Pets

Our pets  may feel pain when they are sick or injured. However, recognising pain can be challenging as animals instinctively hide their pain and exhibit symptoms differently from us. It is important to understand species differences and observe our pets’ behaviour to know if they are hurting.

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Pain can be caused by physical trauma, e.g. being hit by a car, resulting in painful fractures & injuries. Brownie, rescued & rehomed by Causes For Animals.

Pain can be caused by:
  • physical trauma, e.g. falling from a height or being hit by car
  • disease or illness of internal organs, e.g. pancreatitis and blocked urethra
  • surgical procedures, e.g. sterilisation or bone surgery
  • spinal problem, e.g. intervertebral disc disease
  • degenerative changes, e.g. osteoarthritis
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Proptosed eye (displacement of eye ball out of the socket) due to dog fight injury. Although the dog was still active & bright when presented, pain relief was administered immediately to provide some comfort.

Our pets cannot tell us in words when they are in pain

It is important for us to watch our pets closely to detect any changes in behaviour. Your pets may be in pain if they are:

  • unusually quiet or withdrawn
  • very restless or trembling
  • hiding and avoiding human interaction
  • whining or whimpering
  • biting or snapping when touched
  • licking or biting a body part excessively
  • refusing food
  • limping
  • having  difficulty lying down or sleeping
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Increase in heart rate & breathing rate, higher body temperature & blood pressure, or dilated pupils may also be signs of pain.

Sometimes signs of pain are subtle and difficult to diagnose

Chronic pain due to age-related disorders like arthritis or cancer usually develops slowly and is hard to detect because some animals learn to tolerate and live with the pain. Chronic pain can create a “stress response” associated with elevations of cortisol. This may reduce the patient’s immune response, leading to infection and slower healing. 

Animals suspected of experiencing pain (e.g. limping due to strained muscle/ligament) are treated with adequate pain relief and symptoms are monitored for improvement. If undesirable side effects develop, treatment should be stopped or altered accordingly.

Pain management is crucial in managing a patient as it alleviates discomfort and helps the animal recover faster

Pain relief medication is usually administered before, during and after surgery. This helps reduce stress and pain associated with surgery, allowing the animal to rest better and recovery faster. It is always better to start on pre-emptive analgesia than to control pain once it has started.

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For older animals suffering from chronic pain (e.g. osteoarthritis) or patients with terminal illnesses (e.g. cancer), long term pain relief is administered to provide a better quality of life. 11-year-old Babe, gone over the Rainbow Bridge after a short battle with hemangiosarcoma.

If your pet suffers from chronic pain (e.g. osteoarthritis), some basic lifestyle changes can offer relief.
  • Control weight and incorporate light exercises (e.g. hydrotherapy) to decrease joint stress and improve muscular support of the joints.
  • Provide easy access to litter boxes or garden for elimination (e.g. gently-sloped ramp)
  • Raise food and water bowls to a comfortable level 
  • Provide non-slip floor surfaces to help your arthritic pet get up and walk more easily
  • Provide comfortable but firm beds to help your arthritic pet get up more easily
there are many different pain management protocols and there is no “best” one.

We will assess your pets to determine a good pain management plan, taking into account factors such as their history, current condition and physical examination.

Pain relief medications are available in pill/liquid/gel form or skin patches. Do not  medicate your pet yourself. Some painkillers for humans can be toxic to animals even in very small doses.

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This patient underwent a surgical procedure called enucleation (removal of the eye). A fentanyl patch is applied on the left side of her body. The fentanyl patch is a transdermal pain relief drug that provides relief for about 3 days.

The importance of prevention

We can take steps to reduce the risk of painful conditions in our pets. Regular dental checkups can help prevent the development of painful oral diseases. Maintain a healthy weight to reduce the incidence and severity of osteoarthritis. Schedule yearly health checks to detect any health issues early and give your beloved pet the best chance at a long, healthy and pain-free life.

Contributed by Dr Teo Jia Wen, Mount Pleasant Animal Medical Centre (Farrer) with inputs from editor