Pain Management in Pets

Over the past several years, veterinary medicine has dramatically evolved its understanding and approach to pain management in pets. The bond between a pet and its owner makes it more likely that the owner will be the first to recognize the signs that their pet is in pain or experiencing discomfort, making them an important advocate for their pet’s veterinary care. Since pets cannot tell us what treatments are working and which ones are not, the pet owner plays an important role in their pet’s veterinary care.

Understanding the different types of pain is the first step in initiating treatment. Some pain is acute, or temporary, while other pain may be chronic, or persistent. Acute pain often is the result of a sudden event, such as an accident, injury, or surgical procedure. Chronic pain may be experienced for many different reasons, but arthritis and cancer are two of the most common causes. This type of pain may remain consistent, or frequently return over and over.

Sometimes, pain can be the result of a developing medical condition, such as a urinary tract infection or ear infection. Pain is how the body alerts us that something is wrong. Often, once these conditions are treated, the pet will no longer experience pain. However, as in the case of more chronic conditions, such as osteoarthritis, ongoing pain management becomes an important quality of life issue. Pain-induced changes in the nervous system cause it to become more sensitive. The longer pain goes unmanaged, the more difficult it may become to control it.

Understanding the underlying conditions that can result in pain allows the veterinarian to anticipate the need for intervention, potentially controlling pain development. For example, it is known that there will be a certain level of pain during surgery. Depending upon the extent of trauma anticipated, the veterinarian can plan to treat that pet with the appropriate type and dosage of pain medication. Skilled animal doctors can also use the most current surgical techniques to minimize tissue trauma, which may reduce the need for more powerful medications. However, the surgeon must also be aware that each animal will experience unique levels of pain perception.

Pets being treated for behavioral issues should be tested for possible underlying medical conditions that may be causing pain. Inappropriate or aggressive behavior, as well as lameness and self-mutilation may be caused by pain, and pain management plays an important role in that pet’s behavioral treatment.

When selecting medications for pain management in pets, it is important to consider the source of pain. Musculoskeletal pain responds to different medications than neuropathic pain. Once the cause of pain has been determined, veterinarians can then select the medication best suited for that pet’s pain. Pet owners who are more in tune with their pet can be the best resource for animal doctors when assessing which medications are successful in treating their patient’s pain, since they are the most accurate at observing changes in their pet’s behavior.

Providing adequate pain management is vital to patient quality of life, and improves the owner’s bond with his or her pet. Veterinarians should begin educating pet owners on the importance of identifying and treating pain early in their pet’s life. As veterinary medicine evolves its understanding of pain management, new treatments and techniques will become available that can help our companion animals live longer and happier lives.