Why Your Pet's Pain Matters — and What You Can Do About It

Saint Bernard at Vet

As a veterinarian, I have pledged my life to fighting pain and suffering in animals. Of all the advances I’ve seen, embraced and promoted in more than three decades of practice, none is more important to me than the change of opinion toward pain in veterinary medicine and our increased ability to identify and fight pain in our patients. And while you might think stopping pain is all about compassion, there’s actually more to it. Keeping animals pain-free is, in fact, good medicine.

The Healing Advantage

Treating pain doesn't just make the hurting stop: It also promotes healthy healing. Untreated pain slows healing time, interferes with sleep and depresses the immune system. Proper treatment of pain improves respiration, shortens postsurgical hospitalization times and improves mobility. It has also been shown to decrease the spread of cancer in postsurgical mice.

Most veterinarians prescribe pain medication when needed, which is a shift from the days when it was standard to think pain was good for animals in some situations. The idea was that an animal who is in pain will move around less during recovery from surgery or injury, a belief largely discarded after studies showed otherwise.

Most veterinarians are now solidly on board when it comes to fighting pain. But some pet owners, sadly, are still not.

When Pain Management Becomes a Life-or-Death Issue

Some pet owners avoid pain medication because they don’t realize when a pet is in constant pain — or, sadly, they just assume that pain is an inevitable part of getting older. But this doesn't have to be the case. At a seminar given recently at the Western Veterinary Conference, veterinarians from the North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine addressed pet owner unwillingness to treat pain, especially the long-term chronic pain of osteoarthritis. Left untreated, chronic pain truly does become a life-or-death issue, they said, because a pet’s suffering often leads a loving owner to choose euthanasia.

While, of course, euthanasia is the gift we give to pets who no longer can be treated, it pains us veterinarians when people don’t make use of proven strategies and medications — which can be very low risk if managed properly — to alleviate their pets' pain. This type of pain management includes NSAIDs, which frighten many pet owners, but that's only part of the picture.

NCSU’s Drs. Denis Marcellin-Little and John Innes argued strongly that one of the most effective tools against arthritis pain in pets is weight loss. Keeping animals at or slightly below their ideal weight is a complete no-brainer: It’s proven to alleviate pain and is extremely cost-effective as well.

Maintaining your pet’s proper weight and using supplements such as glucosamine, chondroitin and omega 3 oils as your veterinarian advises can delay or reduce the need for prescription pain medications. Complementary and alternative medicine such as acupuncture may also be useful pain management tools.


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