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 mice after surgery.

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 veterinary-approved NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), 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 may help elay or reduce the need for prescription pain medications. Complementary and alternative medicine such as acupuncture may also be useful pain management tools for some pets.

Improving the Quality of Your Pet’s Life

Frequently, pet owners opt not to give their pets prescription pain medications because of concerns about side effects. And that’s really a shame. All drugs have the potential for unwanted side effects, but in the case of pain medications, those risks need to be balanced against the problems caused by untreated pain. As with any drug, the side effects of pain medications can be minimized by using these drugs appropriately.

Modern pain management often involves the family of drugs known as NSAIDs. Yes, these can sometimes cause ulcers and damage the liver and 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. They are powerful, effective tools in veterinary practice.

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. Your veterinarian can work with you on finding other ways to address your pet’s pain. (A note about nonprescription pain medications: None is safe for use in cats, and the only OTC medication commonly used for dogs, aspirin, causes ulcers. I no longer recommend it for my patients.)

Forcing a pet to suffer should not be an option. Please work with your veterinarian to make sure that yours isn’t suffering when there are so many strategies that can help.