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We’ve come a long way in our understanding of pain, and that’s true in veterinary medicine as well as human medicine. We know that chronic pain can suppress the immune system, making animals more susceptible to viruses and bacteria they otherwise might have no problem fighting. And, of course, pain just plain hurts, reducing the quality of life dramatically.
While we veterinarians have advanced alongside our physician colleagues when it comes to managing pain, many pet owners have not. That’s not because they don’t care, but because they don’t know enough to recognize the problem and get help. The problem is especially disturbing in cats, and that’s what had me turning to my colleague and longtime friend Dr. Robin Downing for her expert read on the subject. Dr. Downing is an internationally recognized expert on the subject of pain and how to treat it; her work at the Downing Center for Animal Pain Management in Windsor, Colo., is both compassionate and ground-breaking, and her advocacy for those who can't speak for themselves is passionate.
“There was a study at Texas A&M that looked at cats who presented for other things — none were brought in for pain,” Dr. Downing says. “And they found that 90 percent of cats over the age of 10 had X-ray evidence of painful arthritis. They were in pain, and their owners didn’t know. We now know that the statistics for cat arthritis are the same as for dogs — 20 percent across all age categories. That means one in five cats has osteoarthritis, and one in five cats is in pain, and owners aren’t aware of it.”
The signs of chronic pain in cats are easy to overlook, Dr. Downing says. There are a couple of reasons for that, including cats' instinctive attempts to hide outward signs of pain. In the wild, animals who appear vulnerable are exactly that: To predators on the prowl, unusual behaviors such as those that come with injury or pain are like a sign saying “Eat Here” with an arrow pointing to the unfortunate animal.
We’re nowhere near as observant as these predators, which is why when a cat finally starts showing symptoms of distress, we might not notice them or, more likely, may misread them. Cats prefer their routines and stick to their habits as much as they possibly can, especially when they're in pain.
“It’s important for people to understand that cats are motivated to behave how they always behave,” Dr. Downing says. “That makes it easy for us as cat owners to miss pain in its early stages, when cats are doing their level best to compensate. They like routine, and they want to maintain their routine. That makes it harder for us to identify that moment of 'Hey, wait a minute, there’s something that’s not quite right' until a problem is a little more advanced.”
But Dr. Downing says that when you know what you’re looking for, it’s much easier to see.
“Signs of chronic pain in cats are almost exclusively behavioral in nature,” she says. “We can tell if they’re uncomfortable by monitoring their behavior.”
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