Do animals feel pain the way we do?

IMG_3025A client said something to me this week that really resonates with me. “Will she feel pain from her operation”? Now that’s a great question. The answer in my clinic is NO! All of our routine surgeries get morphine derived painkillers and a second class of drug too that lasts 24 hours. We send them home on pain relief too if needed.

Babies and pets have a lot in common. They can’t talk to us. Babies feel pain, though, and so do pets.

The chemical transmitters, anatomy and pathophysiological mechanisms that mediate pain responses are common across animals and humans. Pain is helpful because it protects the body while it heals. Nature knows that sprained ankles need rest, and the pain response facilitates this. We know that women undergoing hysterectomy feel pain, and in my experience, dogs do too.

We know that animals feel pain in a similar way to us. We don’t know what their emotional response to pain is, but they can express pain very differently to humans.

Clients often tell me their dog is limping; but that he’s not in pain. My response to that is.. if he’s limping he most probably is in pain!! Animals often don’t vocalise pain. Depending on whether they are a predator or a prey species, they might or not display any outward signs of discomfort. A dog might howl with pain, but a bunny being a prey species, won’t want to draw attention to itself and so it might just be very quiet.

My clients tell me that cats often withdraw when uncomfortable; or sometimes they hide in funny places; or they might toilet in the house.

We have an arsenal of drugs at our disposal when it come to medicating pets. We might use epidural or local blocks in some cases. We can give morphine infusions to medical cases such as pancreatitis which can be excruciating. We have a wide range of medications available for managing chronic pain which are amazingly effective. Pets seem to respond extremely well to arthritic medications, and can tolerate them for many years with very few side effects on most cases.

Just a word of warning though; don’t try to medicate your pets at home! Many human drugs are toxic to dogs and cats; and some can be fatal. Paracetamol can cause liver failure in cats. Ibuprofen can cause renal damage in dogs. It’s very easy to overdose pets accidentally and cause more harm than good.

My philosophy is to treat pets with empathy and compassion. No pet should be in pain or discomfort if it is under the care of a vet who understands the mechanisms of pain and how to medicate for it. It’s important to stay up to date with continuing education and to keep learning about new methods available to us. However, if we do our best to treat pets like family members, we can’t go far wrong.