Your Guide to Healthy Healing: How to Treat Cat and Dog Pain

Dog with hurt leg
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Just as with human medicine, advancements in the way we understand and treat pain in dogs and cats are improving the quality of life for our pets. Veterinarians are now able to choose from a wide array of products and strategies to ease the hurt.

"Animals can feel all the same aches and pains that we can because they share the same physiologic structures," says Dr. Robin Downing, owner of Colorado's The Downing Center for Animal Pain Management.

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. The treatment of pain improves respiration, shortens post-surgical hospitalization times and improves mobility.

Complementary and alternative medicine also have much to offer dogs and cats suffering from chronic pain. Acupuncture, physical therapy and supplements such as Glucosamine and Chondroitin can relieve arthritis pain. The veterinary drug Adequan Canine, an injectable relative of glucosamine, can target inflamed joints and help rebuild cartilage.

Should you turn to meds to help mitigate the pain? Most veterinarians prescribe pain medication when needed, but some still believe a pet will move around less during recovery from surgery or injury if in pain — a belief no longer supported by studies. If an animal needs to be restrained, it's better to use a leash or a crate.

Still, many owners don't give pets pain medications — even if they are prescribed — because of concerns about side effects. All drugs can cause unwanted effects, but those risks need to be balanced against the problems caused by untreated pain. Side effects can also be minimized by using drugs appropriately.

The family of drugs known as NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) can cause ulcers and damage the kidneys in pets, just as they can in humans. But in the same way that people continue to use these drugs for everything from headaches to back injuries, NSAIDs have a valuable role to play in the management of animal pain.

When NSAIDs are needed, it's essential to follow label recommendations for veterinary testing and monitoring of liver and kidney function. Pet owners should review all potential side effects with the veterinarian and stop giving the drug immediately if vomiting or lethargy is observed or if the pet stops showing interest in eating.

Pain-management experts also suggest asking the veterinarian about human drugs including Misoprostol and Sulcrafate, which can help protect the stomach lining and prevent ulcers. For dogs, the prescription of Tramadol has been on the increase, and many dogs unable to tolerate NSAIDs have benefited. Tramadol can also be used with NSAIDs and can be taken with steroids, which NSAIDs cannot.

In certain cases, your pet may need a more potent drug. Some dogs and cats, such as those with certain kinds of cancer, need the powerful pain relief that only opiates can provide. Owners often dislike these drugs because they make pets groggy. Fortunately, if long-term use is necessary, the sedation effect usually lessens after a few days.

Opiates can also cause nausea and lack of appetite. A bit of catnip often takes care of this for feline patients, while peppermint or ginger — even in the form of a gingersnap — can make a dog feel better. There are also prescription medications that can help control nausea.

Which approach is best for your dog or cat? Downing is one of just a handful of veterinarians worldwide credentialed in human medicine's American Academy of Pain Management, as well as being a certified veterinary acupuncturist and physiotherapist. Her approach to pain takes into account the pet's lifestyle and family issues as well as the actual source of the pain.

"I certainly leverage all the tools I can for fighting pain," Downing says. "But my long-term strategy is always maximum comfort and mobility with minimum negative impact on the body. We rely on physical medicine techniques, adapted from human medicine, to complement what we accomplish with medication as well as nutrition."

Pain control is never a "one size fits all" prescription, and there are dozens of drugs that can be used alone and with other medications to relieve all but the most extreme pain in animals.

When a veterinarian isn't sure how to get to the bottom of a pet's pain, it's always worth asking for a consultation with a specialist to design a safe, individualized pain-management program. Veterinary specialists in oncology, surgery and anesthesia are usually most familiar with the wide variety of drugs available today and their safe use.


This article was written by a Veterinarian.

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