Creature Feature: For pets, pain is what we say it is

25 May

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Family, 1E, May 25, 2011

By Rhonda Owen, Special to the Democrat-Gazette

I’ve heard that cats don’t feel pain like people do. Is that true? If it is, how can I tell if my cat is hurting?

Cats and other animals do feel pain, but they are better at masking it than we are. In the wild, showing pain makes them vulnerable, so animals have learned to hide pain as a protective measure.

However, just because an animal won’t overtly show pain doesn’t mean there aren’t signs.

“Although all animals experience pain, expression varies with age and species, as well as among individuals,” the American Animal Hospital Association says in its “Pain Management Guidelines for Dogs and Cats.”

Veterinarians focus on an animal’s behavior to assess the type and level of pain, but that can be tricky because behavioral changes may be subtle. Also, the vet needs to understand a pet’s normal behavior before he is able to identify abnormal behavior. This is where a pet owner’s observations can be invaluable, the association says.

“For humans, pain is what the patient says it is. For animals, pain is what we say it is,” veterinarian Arnold Plotnick explains in Catnip, a publication of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.

He says it’s also hard for veterinarians and pet owners to accurately measure an animal’s pain, especially in cats. Dogs will “vocalize” or cry out when they’re in pain, while a cat may not.

“As a general rule, cats do not demonstrate overt pain-associated behavior,” Plotnick says.

After surgery, cats often get less care for pain management — primarily because it’s hard to recognize or determine a cat’s level of pain. But a cat’s posture can provide some signs.

“A cat with a hunched posture, head hung low, eyelids half closed, sitting quietly in its cage and not seeking attention or resenting being handled is probably experiencing pain,” Plotnick says. “Cats in pain sit at the back of their cage, rather than in the front.”

In contrast, a dog in pain may be restless or agitated, or may react aggressively if touched or handled. Some dogs will act timid or needy and want more contact with people.

“Dogs may adopt an abnormal body posture in an attempt to cope with pain,” he says, explaining that a dog with abdominal pain may tense up its torso or arch its back.

The animal hospital association says there are general signs for cats and dogs that may indicate pain:

• Decreased activity or appetite. A cat may stop grooming or may not want to eat, for example.

• “Inappropriate elimination,” which in indoor cats could mean urinating beside the litter box or elsewhere in the home. If a cat begins doing this, it’s sometimes a sign of a bladder or kidney infection.

• Increased body tension or flinching when touched.

• Elevated heart rate, blood pressure or body temperature as well as rapid breathing.

The association also notes that the most overlooked cause of pain in cats has to do with muscular soreness, arthritis and degenerative joint disease.

Creature Feature appears each Wednesday in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
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