Is My Pet In Pain?
This is the first part of a series of blog posts on recognizing pain in our pet friends. Stay tuned for more!
Throughout my career, in emergency medicine, general practice, and now in pain management, the first question most owners ask me is “Is my pet in pain?” It didn’t matter the reason for their visit. It could be for limping or an injury, vomiting or diarrhea, or even kidney failure or cancer. Every owner’s main concern is whether or not their pet is in pain. So were they? Pain in pets can be difficult to detect. It may be as subtle as decreased activity. It may be as obvious as crying out in pain when touched. It may be somewhere in between.
In the vein of every middle school essay, Webster’s Dictionary defines pain as “A localized or generalized unpleasant bodily sensation or complex of sensations that causes mild to severe physical discomfort and emotional distress and typically results from bodily disorder (such as injury or disease) also : the state marked by the presence of such sensations.” By that definition, most of the pets I’d see in an emergent situation are in some degree of pain. But how can we detect it and subsequently treat it?
“Pain in pets can be difficult to detect. It may be as subtle as decreased activity. It may be as obvious as crying out in pain when touched. It may be somewhere in between.”
The simplest sign of pain I see in animals is limping. If they are favoring the use of one or more of their legs, there must be some kind of pain sensation that is driving that. This can be difficult for owners to grasp, especially in stoic pets or your happy-go-lucky Labrador. They aren’t crying, their tail is still wagging, so how could they be in pain? My answer is simple- anytime you limp, you are doing so because it is uncomfortable to evenly bear weight on your legs. The same goes for dogs. If they are limping, even if they don’t cry out when you touch the affected limb and are otherwise trying to run after their ball, they are in pain. The cause of that pain could range from a simple muscle sprain or strain (what we refer to as a “soft tissue injury”) or could be as serious as a fracture. Sometimes we will see a beagle that stubbed their toe and is limping and crying in the most dramatic fashion possible. Other times, their behavior is more nuanced.
“The simplest sign of pain I see in animals is limping. If they are favoring the use of one or more of their legs, there must be some kind of pain sensation that is driving that.”
One of my favorite limping stories comes from 2020, during peak COVID times. I was still working in emergency at that time and was seeing some 20-30 triages per shift. There were several reasons for this influx. There were fewer emergency and urgent care clinics at the time. Primary vets were not operating at full capacity due to staffing shortages and curbside service. Many people got pets during the pandemic because they were spending more time at home. Well during one of those crazy COVID shifts, I was in between seeing multiple critically ill and injured dogs, when a triage was called for a one-year-old german shepherd. She had run into the woods the day before and emerged limping on her left hind leg. While my other cases were more critical and required immediate attention, I wanted to make sure that this pup was not terribly painful and could wait the 3-4 hours it would take for me to see them. I asked a nurse to just grab the dog and have him walk past me so I could observe her gait and make sure she was comfortable. This puppy was pulling on her leash and dragging our triage nurse as she trotted past me, her left hind leg dangling with an obvious complete femur fracture. It had been over 24 hours since her injury, and she had been running and eating. So dogs (like people) have different pain tolerances.
And such concludes our first of hopefully many blog posts on recognizing pain in your pets. If you ever have any questions or would like your pet evaluated, we are always taking new patients.