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Some people assume that cats don’t get arthritis, but that’s not true. We can see evidence of it on radiographs the same way we do with dogs, and cats have joints that can deteriorate with age. Whatever the cause, chronic pain can affect pets in many ways. It may persist long after an injury or surgical site should have healed. Sometimes pain in one area can cause greater sensitivity to pain in other parts of the body. Other animals may experience pain in response to light touch or pressure or mild temperature changes — things that wouldn’t normally cause discomfort. The bottom line? Chronic pain is a distinct disease of the nervous system and it is underdiagnosed in cats and dogs.
How we go about treating pain depends on the individual animal and his condition. There is no one-size-fits-all remedy. We often have to go through a process of trial and error to find the best ways to manage pain. When pets come in with severe pain, we use powerful medications to put a stop to it as quickly as possible. Then our goal is to bring in more moderate or mild medications to control the pain over the long term. Medication options for pets include NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs); opiates, which can be used alone or in combination with NSAIDs; and some antiseizure and antidepressant drugs that have been found to be effective for managing pain.
Which drugs your veterinarian chooses depends on your pet’s species and overall health. Drugs that are safe for dogs aren’t always safe for cats or might need to be used differently in cats. All drugs have the potential for side effects, and with some you will need to have your pet’s liver and kidney functions checked every few months to make sure the medication isn’t causing any problems. Call your veterinarian if your pet starts vomiting, becomes lethargic or loses his appetite after starting any medication.
Veterinarians also like to use what’s called multimodal, or layered, treatment. That might involve combining different drugs or using drugs in partnership with complementary therapies like acupuncture, massage, physical rehab and nutraceuticals such as glucosamine/chondroitin sulfate (an oral joint supplement) or fish oils. Together, the treatments can be more effective than a single drug or treatment used alone.
In severe cases, it can be a good idea to ask your veterinarian to refer you to a specialist who can work with the two of you to develop a pain management plan for your pet’s specific needs. Simple changes to your pet’s environment can also help sometimes. Get some pet steps or a ramp so it’s easier for him to get onto the furniture. A temperature-controlled bed can help warm and soothe achy joints. If he’s overweight, talk to your vet about how to safely adjust his diet and introduce safe forms of gentle exercise and play every day.
Sometimes we’re not sure if a pet is in pain, but if he has a condition that is normally painful, there’s a good chance that he’s in pain and just isn’t willing to tell us about it. In those cases, we might treat for the pain we expect and see what happens. Oftentimes, we can tell from the response — for instance, he’s moving around more and enjoys being petted again — that he was in pain that has been relieved.
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