How to help your pet in pain

1 September 2023

September is National Pain Month. We spoke to Ian Self, Reader in Veterinary Anaesthesia and Analgesia and Editor of the BSAVA Guide to Pain Management in Small Animal Practice, to find out how we can recognise if our pet is in pain and what we can do to help it.

Is animal pain the same as human pain?

  • We know that animals experience pain in much the same way as humans do. It is caused by the same problems that cause pain in people and will be unpleasant for our pets to experience.
  • Some people argue that pain is worse for animals as they ‘live in the moment’ – they don’t know that they can take a painkiller and the pain will eventually disappear, they only know that it hurts.

How can I tell if my pet is in pain?

  • There are a number of ways. I always work on the assumption that ‘if it hurts me, it will hurt my pet’. So, if a pet has injured themselves, or is undergoing surgery, always assume pain is present.
  • Behaviour is the most important way to assess pain. Any change in behaviour (becoming quieter than usual, or conversely becoming more aggressive) may indicate a source of pain, although there are obviously other causes as well.
  • Is your pet limping, reluctant to move, showing ‘stiffness’ (particularly in the mornings after rest), licking or guarding an area? All are signs of pain and the animals trying to communicate the fact.
  • If in any doubt, get your pet checked by a veterinary surgeon who will be able to examine and use pain scales to assess your pet’s pain.

But my pet doesn’t look like it’s in pain…?

Our pets are domesticated but all have wild animal ancestors. In the wild, it is a weakness to show pain and many of our pets still try to ‘hide’ their pain, so they don’t appear vulnerable. Often, giving these animals painkillers will show a dramatic improvement in their behaviour allowing them to live normally again.

How can I help my pet in pain?/ What are the main options for pain management?

  • First of all, recognise the signs that your pet may be in pain and seek professional advice. Many causes of pain can be eliminated with the appropriate treatment, and this is easier in the early stages of a disease.
  • Unless you are sure of the diagnosis, and you have been advised by a veterinary surgeon to do so, it is not safe to use human pain medications as many will have potentially life-threatening side effects if used inappropriately.
  • If you are in any doubt, visit your veterinary surgery and speak to a professional who can help you assess your pet. Once this has been done, you will be able to develop a pain management plan together. This could include:
    • Pain medications. There are a wide variety of pain medications available for different conditions and the exact type will depend on the underlying disease. Even for common diseases such as osteoarthritis, here are now several licenced agents which can help all with different actions. These may come as liquids, tablets, or injections.
    • There are many options for physiotherapy which may help, including hydrotherapy and massage. Seek the help of a registered veterinary physiotherapist who will be able to advise on the best option and will liaise with your vet.
    • Pain assessment tools. Your vet will be able to assists with tools you can use at home to assess pain. This can be very helpful particularly with chronic conditions where you can see the effects of various treatments on your pet’s quality of life and pain level.
    • Environment – For example, getting ramps and softer beds for pets with osteoarthritis pain to allow them to carry out their normal life as much as possible.
    • Alternative therapies. Some people offer complementary therapies such as acupuncture which may have a role in improving your pet’s comfort. Your vet will advise on the most appropriate complementary therapy based on your pet’s underlying condition.

What if my pet isn’t treated for pain (i.e. what are the potential consequences of untreated pain)?

Untreated pain leads to a number of consequences including weight loss, loss of appetite, increased incidence of infections, a poor unkempt coat and potentially behavioural changes. Additionally, it is a very unpleasant experience for our pets. None of us would want this for our pets, so it is always better to get things checked out.

What is the future of pain treatment?

  • It’s very difficult to be exact as there is extensive research into pain in animals and how we can improve our diagnosis and treatment.
  • We will almost certainly have longer-acting painkillers available, making it easier to treat pets as we won’t have to give tablets as often.
  • I expect a number of new drugs to filter through over the next few years. We have already seen the development of monoclonal antibodies against nerve growth factor (a protein released from painful joints causing more pain) which can be injected monthly. There is also interest in other compounds such as CBD, although the evidence for this at the moment is limited and there is no licenced treatment available.
  • I think that multidisciplinary team approaches will also come to the fore, including vets, nurses, physiotherapists and behavioural experts, all working together to improve patient welfare.
  • What we can be certain is that as the range of drugs and treatments expands, we will be in a much better position to alleviate suffering in our pets, which is great news for us all.