Addressing Pain in Senior Dogs


Addressing pain in dogs hasn't always been a top priority for veterinarians. In fact, at one time, many in the profession believed animals weren't capable of feeling pain or somehow perceived it differently than humans.

Now that's changed. Over the last decade, research has shown how animals and humans have similar neural pathways for the development, conduction, and modulation of pain.

"They feel pain just like we do," explains veterinarian Shana Savikko, a veterinary adviser for the American Animal Hospital Association in Lakewood, Colorado. "And that pain can be debilitating, decrease the quality of life, and decrease the bond between the pet and the owner."

Armed with better knowledge, veterinary medicine has taken a huge leap forward in reducing animal suffering caused by painful surgeries, injuries, illnesses and chronic conditions.

Today, pain management is frequently taught in the curriculum at many veterinary schools. In fact, a few years ago the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) released a blueprint, of sorts, for veterinarians on how to relieve, and when possible, eliminate animal suffering.

For older dogs, controlling pain can be challenging. A host of medical conditions and illnesses cause discomfort in senior dogs, notes Savikko, ranging from osteoarthritis and tooth abscesses to several types of cancer.

Just like humans each dog experiences pain differently. For some unlucky pooches the discomfort may be caused by more than one source. For example, an older dog already creaky with arthritis that undergoes surgery to remove a potentially cancerous mass might experience muscular discomfort from positioning during the procedure and the operation itself.

Unfortunately our pets can't tell us when they're not feeling well and, in fact, instinctively try to hide their discomfort from us. "By the time you see them showing signs of pain it usually means they've been hurting for quite awhile," says Savikko.

Here are a few of the physical and behavioral signs, possibly triggered by pain, to look for in your pooch:

  • Unusually quiet, listless, restless or unresponsive.
  • Whining, whimpering, or howling.
  • Constant licking of a particular part of the body.
  • Acting out-of-character either aggressively or submissively.
  • Ears flattened against the head.
  • Trouble sleeping or eating.
  • Seeking more affection than usual.

"They may also be slower to get up and less willing to participate in the normal activities that they used to enjoy so much," adds Savikko.

If you suspect your dog is in pain, make an appointment to see your veterinarian. There are a lot of ways veterinarians can help your pet feel better, she says, including prescribing medication to control symptoms such as inflammation, swelling, stiffness and joint discomfort.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are an option for geriatric pets, especially those suffering from arthritis. Veterinary experts warn, though, that pills used to control pain, such as NSAIDs, should only be given when necessary and in the smallest effective dose.

You can also alleviate your dog's discomfort through a more holistic approach, which includes nutritional supplements, acupuncture, massage and physical therapy. Rehabilitation techniques to get dogs back on all four paws are similar to what's done on humans. These include heat therapy, stretching, passive range-of-motion exercises, and hydrotherapy.

Quickly pinpointing pain in your aging pets and taking the appropriate action is important to significantly improve the quality of their lives.

About the Author: Maryann Mott is an Arizona-based pet journalist.

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