The More It Hurts, the More I Hide It:
Reflections on Animal Pain

By Christie Keith

My deerhounds are funny about pain. If one of them gets a sticker in his toe or bumps into a tree, he’ll scream like he is being skewered. But if something really serious is wrong with one, suddenly he goes blank, as though nothing at all is wrong. Vets comment that animals like this are “stoic” about pain.

This instinct to hide pain and infirmity is a legacy of the wild origins of our dogs and cats. While their “eternal infancy” as our pets makes it ok to shriek and howl if a favorite toy is taken away or a toe is stubbed, something far more primitive and survival-oriented kicks in when they are seriously ill or disabled. In the wild, an infirm animal is vulnerable to attack, and it’s a survival advantage to act like nothing is wrong even when something most definitely is.

This phenomenon allowed many veterinarians and other people to believe that animals don’t feel pain like we do, or at least, that they don’t feel it as much as we do. But recent research has found that dogs and cats do indeed suffer from pain pretty much exactly the way we do, and that pain in and of itself will impede healing from illness, injury, and surgery.

In 1992, a Morris Animal Foundation-funded study by Dr. Steve Fox, “Perioperative Effects of Analgesia on Surgical Pain/Distress in the Dog,” looked at the issue of pain management following spay surgery in dogs.

“Spay is the most frequently performed surgical procedure in companion animal veterinary practice, and is most often considered to be a ‘routine’ operation,” Dr. Fox was quoted as saying. “As such, this operation is often accepted as a benign procedure and is performed without the administration of associated pain-relieving drugs.”

The study found that spay surgery does cause significant pain, and that relieving that pain substantially improved recovery in spayed dogs.

A decade ago it was rare for pain medications to be given to pets after spaying or neutering, dentistry, or even serious injuries or orthopedic surgery. Certainly few vets sent patients home with pain medication, even if they used it in their hospitals. Can you imagine a human being sent home from a hysterectomy or hip replacement without pain medication? And yet to this day, despite research that shows that animals whose pain is prevented or controlled recover faster and better than animals whose pain is not, many vets still do not prescribe pain medication for pets.

According to Romayne Gallagher, MD, of, “It turns out that healing is actually delayed when pain caused by tissue damage is not relieved. A number of studies suggest that uncontrolled pain has an adverse effect on our immune system. Continuous pain also appears to lower our body’s ability to respond to stressful situations such as surgery, chemotherapy, and psychological stress.”

The veterinarians at the University of Wisconsin Veterinary School are proponents of pain control for pets. They point out that the “benefits include improved respiratory functions, decreasing stress responses surrounding surgery, decreased length of hospitalization, faster recovery to normal mobility, improved rates of healing and even decreasing the spread of cancer after surgery. Almost all studies show people and animals return to normal eating and drinking habits sooner when given relief from pain. Therefore prevention, early recognition and aggressive management of pain and anxiety should be essential to veterinary care of small mammals. The current approach is to be sensitive to the subtle signs of pain, because the treatment of pain itself can be healing. Pain is stressful and can prolong recovery.”

Some vets will even say that they feel a little pain is good for an animal who needs to be rested, as it helps keep them quiet. A 1996 British survey found that “(S)ome veterinarians considered that a degree of pain was necessary postoperatively to prevent excessive activity.” This philosophy makes my blood boil. What would you think of a pediatrician who said that the pain of a broken leg would be good for your child, because it would keep them quiet while the bone healed? Would the word “sadistic” cross your mind? If an animal needs to be restrained, they can be kept in a carrier, crate, small pen, or a small room or baby-gated alcove. If they are still too active and in pain, narcotics will make them sleepy while controlling their pain.

In the next article in this series, I’ll examine some pain control options for both chronic and acute pain, and their risks and benefits.

Copyright 2003 by Christie Keith


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