September Is Animal Pain Awareness Month

Dear animals, if only you could tell us where it hurts!

Not too long ago, people believed that animals do not experience pain. Luckily, we know better now. 

The International Veterinary Academy of Pain Management has acknowledged September as the Animal Pain Awareness Month. And for this cause, let us take a look at some painful conditions that animals may have to/ been living with. Pain in animals can be physical as well as emotional. Unfortunately, evolution taught them to suffer silently. And to you, as an animal lover, it can be distressing to know that your pet at home or the animal on the street out there could be experiencing discomfort or worse, is in pain. 

But we can help them. Fortunately, there are ways that animals can communicate with us, if not verbally. What we can do is to be more observant of the pain symptoms, encourage pain recognition, and seek timely veterinary care for the animals around us. 

Pain in Animals:

Have you ever wondered how your kitty feels pain? Or the animals in the wild? Or even the fishes in the sea? Pain is an unpleasant and aversive sensation and can affect both the physical and mental wellbeing of an animal. Pain in animals can be caused by a variety of reasons, and this pain could be temporary or ‘acute,’ or can be more long-term or ‘chronic.’ 

Natural predators and prey animals will behave differently when in pain. Dogs, which are predators, tend to show behavioural changes while rabbits or goats, which are prey animals, usually tend to hide their pain. But when it comes to showing their pain, animals are much more subtle than humans. And for this reason, identifying pain in animals, what they feel, or whether the medicines are working can be especially challenging due to the animal’s inability to communicate. 

Classifications of Pain in Animals:

  • Nociceptive pain: Nociception is an animal’s way to respond to potentially dangerous stimuli in its environment. The nociceptive pain is thus caused by the detection of painful stimuli. This can be caused by biological, chemical, mechanical, or thermal conditions. Their rough-and-tumble play can cause them bruises, injuries, tissue ruptures, and bone fractures. This type of pain is easy to detect as it is mostly localised and is, thus, easy to eliminate once the cause has been determined. Nociceptive pain is also formed when there are diseases in the internal organs. Such cases can be more difficult to detect. 
  • Neuropathic pain: Neuropathic pain is a result of damage to a nerve or the central nervous system. Since animals are unable to communicate bodily feelings such as tingling or burning sensation, this type of pain is not frequently diagnosed. 
  • Psychogenic pain: Psychogenic pain is attributed to many psychological factors and is caused by mental, emotional, or behavioural factors in animals. Some theories suggest that this type of pain can also be caused due to pain memory. And the lack of a physical source of pain makes it hard to detect. 

Duration of Pain:

Pain can occur suddenly or be a result of long-term wear and tear. The duration of pain experienced  depends largely on the type of pain:
  • Acute pain: This generally follows an injury and disappears when the injury heals.
  • Chronic pain: Recurring bouts of acute pain can turn into chronic pain in animals. In addition, discomfort and diminished mobility can lead to other psychological problems too.
  • Chronic inflammatory pain: This type of pain can last months or even years beyond its first trigger. If the healing persists way beyond the expected time, it can lead to further pain.
  • Chronic neuropathic pain: Usually caused by progressive nerve disease, this type of pain is chronic and is defined as 'sharp' or 'shooting' pain.

Do Animals Feel the Pain the Same Way As We Humans Do?

Animal pain behaviour differs greatly from human pain behaviour, as does their autonomy. Whether animals experience pain just like us in the unknown, but that does not mean they don’t feel it. Pain in animals can be very complex. Their inability to express pain by vocalising can many a time be misinterpreted. Though there are many behavioural changes that can be observed, most of these are very subtle and easy to miss. Abnormal behaviour can be indicative of underlying pain conditions. 

Assessing Pain in Animals:

Animals and their species-specific behaviours can help us recognize that they may be in pain. Veterinarians consider the following parameters when evaluating pain in animals:
  • They check for the vitals: Checking vital signs such as heart rate and blood pressure is one way to know if the animal is in pain. However, they are not indicative of the source of pain. Fear and anxiety can also lead to abnormal changes in the vitals.
  • They look for behavioural changes: Vets know a great deal about the normal behaviour of a particular species or breed of an animal. And so, narrowing down on pain-induced behaviours is particularly easy for a vet. Your pet’s attitude and interaction will also be helpful in recognizing the relationship between behavioural changes and pain.  
  • They use pain scales and animal history: Veterinarians also use a tool called pain scale, which uses a questionnaire to obtain a pain score in animals. Information such as the cause of pain (if known), affected area, species, age, gender, breed, environment, and living conditions are helpful in subjective pain assessment in animals. Pain score combined with species-specific behaviour is more accurate in narrowing down the severity of pain.  

What Can You Do to Keep Your Pet Safe?

If you own an animal, there are a few things that you can do to minimize the risk of the animal experiencing pain. 

  • Make sure you provide your pet with a safe and secure environment to dwell in.
  • Make sure that your pet is up-to-date on all its vaccines.
  • Provide your pet with adequate nutrition and exercise.
  • Check your pet regularly for injuries. Also, keep a check on their dental health.
  • Groom them to maintain a healthy coat, if any.
  • Get in touch with a vet as soon as you notice signs of abnormality.

A Few Common Signs to Observe Pain in Animals Include:

  • Changes in posture such as idiopathic curving of the back, restriction in the joint, limb elevation, hunched or stooped posture.
  • Changes in movements can include difficulties in getting up, stilted stride, mono-limb lameness, and gait abnormalities among others. 
  • Changes in social behaviour such as seclusion, concealment, restlessness, showing less affection towards the owner, increased aggression.

How Animal Pain Can Be Treated:

The veterinarian will typically decide the type of medications and pain management depending on the cause, type, and severity of your animal’s pain. NSAID (Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug), and the more potent Corticosteroids are a few main types of medications that are prescribed to animals. Apart from medications, physical therapy and nutritional supplements can also sometimes be beneficial. 

Consequences of Pain That Is Left Untreated:

Unattended medical issues in pets can have far-reaching negative consequences. Let’s look at some of them:
  • Animals usually have an adaptive immune system, which makes for a rapid defence. But the stress caused by pain can weaken their immune system making them more susceptible to other infections.
  • A weakened immune system can lead to reduced wound healing in animals.
  • Reduced movement in animals can lead to muscle atrophy or muscle loss.
  • Muscle loss and loss of appetite can lead to an eventual weight loss.
  • Abnormal posture of the limbs due to shifting of weight and backache.
  • Reduced or insufficient water intake can lead to dehydration and loss of electrolytes.

Signs and Symptoms That Your Dog Is in Pain

When humans are in pain, they can’t stop complaining about it. But your dog, unfortunately, cannot tell you that it is hurting. If you have a dog at home, look out for these signs:
  • Do you see your dog licking excessively in a specific area? Dogs will over or excessive groom at a particular spot can soothe the pain.
  • Avoidance, aggression, excessive barking, and other personality changes. 
  • Changes in eating and sleeping habits.
  • Issues with mobility such as limping (sore paws) or stiffness (arthritis).
  • Dogs pant to regulate their body temperature. But if the dog is excessively panting without running around too much, it could be the sign of pain.
  • Dogs eat grass to vomit, and this is a fairly common practice. But if this is happening frequently, it could be a sign that something is wrong.

Signs and Symptoms That Your Cat Is in Pain

Cats are usually lackadaisical, and this makes it hard to know if they are hurting. Here are a few things to lookout for:
  • Cats don’t like to be bothered and are hence in hiding most of the times. But if you see that your cat is hiding for longer periods than usual, it could be a sign that something is not okay.
  • Crouching from back pain can prevent your cat from using the litter box. This can indicate mobility issues.
  • Not allowing the owner to handle them and increased sensitivity to touch.
  • Increased irritability, frequent hissing and growling.
  • Increased or decreased grooming in a particular area.
  • Loss of appetite and lethargy.

To conclude, trust your instincts. Pet owners ‘know’ their pets. If your gut says something is wrong with your pet, do not just assume it will be all right. As a responsible animal owner, you must help your pet live the best quality of life. This animal pet awareness month, educate yourself, and also others around you to act immediately when signs of pain are detected in animals. 

Aaditee Kulkarni

Aaditee Kulkarni

Jeevoka member since Aug 2020