Treating Your Senior Pet's Aches and Pains

Senior Pug
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It’s so easy to tell when our animals — even older pets — are happy or joyous. We know that they are glad to see us or excited about going for a walk or passionate about chasing a laser toy. But there’s one thing they will hide from us at all costs: that they’re in pain.

Managing pain in animals is always a challenge. First of all, cats and dogs can’t tell us where or how much it hurts. Second of all, they probably wouldn’t tell us even if they could. Animals, especially older ones, instinctively try to hide pain or weakness because it puts them at risk from predators. Age is a factor, too. As our pets live longer, they are more likely to develop chronic illnesses that cause pain. And pain in senior pets can be difficult to manage because treating their health issues may conflict with treating their pain.

Fortunately, we know a lot more these days about recognizing pain in animals, how to relieve it and how to know when our pets are feeling better. Let me share with you some tips that can help your golden oldie stay comfortable even when faced with the chronic pain and disability that so often accompany aging.

Signs and Causes of Pain

You are probably used to seeing your dog or cat jump with ease onto the bed or sofa, trot up and down the stairs, and twist himself into pretzel-like shapes during grooming. When you notice changes in these activities, it may be the first inkling that your pet is in pain. Common signs of pain in cats and dogs include changes in sleep patterns or locations, obsessively licking or grooming a particular area, a reluctance to be petted or groomed, difficulty jumping up or down, lameness, lack of appetite, nausea and lethargy. Cats may groom themselves less often or start to miss the litterbox.

Any such unusual behavior can be a hint that your pet hurts. Even if you take your pet to the vet, an examination doesn’t always give clear evidence of pain. It’s helpful to your veterinarian if you write down the things you’ve noticed, such as the pet being sensitive in a particular area or having trouble getting on and off furniture. Your veterinarian may also note some physiologic signs that can be associated with the stress of pain, such as tachycardia (rapid heart rate), hypertension ( high blood pressure) and tachypnea (rapid breathing).

Pain is often related to diseases that pets develop as they age. The most common diseases we see associated with chronic pain — long-lasting pain that doesn’t serve any real purpose — include urinary tract disease, inflammatory bowel disease, chronic ocular disease such as glaucoma, chronic pancreatitis, megacolon or chronic constipation, cancer, periodontal disease and stomatitis (inflammation of the tissues lining the mouth). We don’t always think of some of these diseases as being painful, but they definitely can be. Other causes of pain include degenerative joint disease or osteoarthritis, as well as the aftermath of injuries or surgery.

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