Welcome to Sunnyside Veterinary Clinic. We have
a special offer for all new clients.
Click here for details
Our Special Library
is a collection of informative articles on a variety of health topics.
Click here . . .
Click here for
information on how to care for your pet at home.
Click here . . .
How can we tell if our pets
Different species show pain differently.
Because dogs and cats show pain differently than humans
do, a lot of people have concluded that animals don't
feel much pain. In fact, in the old days, it was
taught in veterinary schools that animals did not feel
Yet at the same time the anatomists and the
physiologists knew that animals' nervous systems are
just like ours. The nerve endings function
in the same ways our do. There have been studies
done comparing animals and humans in pain threshold
tests, and they found that animals feel pain at the same
stimulation levels as humans. The pharmacologists
who develope and test new pain medications did their
original experiments in animals, and they found that
what worked in animals also worked in people.
We now know that this is absolutely not true that
animals do not feel pain, and pregressive veterinarians
believe in doing everything they can to treat pain in
So why do animals not show pain? The answer is
that they do feel pain, but they do not show that they
feel pain with the same mannerisms that humans use to
show pain. Because we are not used to speaking the
animals "pain language," we miss most of their "I hurt"
When I ask clients whether they think their pet is in
pain, they often respond with statements like these:
"No, he isn't whining so he must not be in pain."
"No, he is still eating so his tooth must not hurt him."
"No, she's a little stiff but she still wants to play."
We seem to expect animals to react very dramatically to
pain, and when they don't, we often conclude that they
must not be in any pain at all. Think back to the
last time you were is pain. Did you moan
continuously? Probably not, but you were
nonetheless in significant pain. Remember when you
had you wisdom teeth out? It hurt, didn't it.
But you did not quit eating. Anybody have
arthritis? I do, but I still enjoy many activities
even though it hurts a bit.
Also, we often expect animals to show pain in ways that
are contrary to their nature. It is instinctive
for animals to hide their weaknesses, not to bring
attention to them. In the wild, an injured wolf
that whines will attract predators like a garbage truck
attracts flies. It would be suicide in the wild
for an injured wolf to whine or cry out, so they don't.
We also expect painful animals to be inactive. That is
what we would do. But a seriously painful wolf who
looks like a seriously injured wolf is at a much greater
risk of being attacked than one who does not seem so
helpless. A painful wolf that doesn't stay with
the pack attracts predators like he
was sitting on a serving tray. So they continue to
stay with the pack move and act as normally as possible.
We also expect injured animals to quit eating,
especially animals with dental pain, because that is
what we think would do (even though we don't). But
a wolf with a broken tooth that stops eating rapidly
becomes a thin, weak, mal-nourished wolf with a broken
tooth and becomes a prime target for predators. So
they continue to eat through the pain.
Then there is the issue of what would you do if you were
injured but you didn't know that there was anything
anybody could do? We seem to expect our pets, when
they are in pain, to seek us out and somehow communicate
to us that they are in pain. Not only is this
against their nature, as we have discussed above, but it
becomes even more unlkely and improbable when we
consider that an animals has no way of knowing that
relief is even possible.
If you were playing frisbee one day and blew out your
knee, what would you do? I would stay off it for a
day to see if it got better, then I would try some OTC
pain medicine for a few days while resting it, and if
that didn't work I would go see a doctor and have
surgery if needed. But if I didn't know that
there was such a thing as pain medicine or doctors or
surgery, I would probably just go back to work and carry
on as best as I could. And if I couldn't talk, I
probably wouldn't complain about it a whole lot,
especially if I thought the predators were watching.
So how do animals show pain? They show it in very
subtle ways. These ways might include
sitting in unusual positions
eating less vigorously
being less interactive with humans
less competitive socially
Notice that all of the above are relative things, and if
the pain has been present for a long time, we often
forget how they used to be, and we have nothing to
compare the current behavior to.
A veterinarian related this personal story of how his
own dog showed pain. In this case, the dog damaged
a tooth. The tooth wasn't knocked out or broken,
but it had sustained an injury known as pulpitis, where
the sensitive pulp inside the tooth is damaged by
trauma. The injured pulp bleeds inside the tooth,
causing the tooth to change color.
The veterinarian relates, "In 1983 my dog Mutley was
playing tug of war with our youngest son. Mutley
yelped out and we watched his tooth turn pink. He
completely went off feed for one day. And for the next
few days went from the alpha dog in the family to the
bottom of the pack. The other dogs would push him away
from his food bowl and he let them. The next week I did
a root canal on the tooth and the following day he went
back to being the alpha male."
This dog was experiencing severe dental pain, yet he
showed only subtle signs. He only quit eating for
one day. He showed no other sign of tooth pain
that the veterinarian could identify, except that he was
bothered by the pain so much that he could no longer
defend his status in the pecking order. As soon as the
pain was relieved by the root canal therapy, he
immediately became top dog again.
can we tell if our pet is
There are two ways. One is by careful observation.
The other is by logic. We know that the "hardware"
of the animal nervous system is identical to ours.
We can therefore expect that things that cause us pain
will also cause pain in our pets. Just because
they do not show pain in ways that we expect them to
show pain does not mean that they are not feeling pain.
At Sunnyside Veterinary Clinic, we believe that surgery
hurts, and that animals can be in significant pain for
several days and not show dramatic signs of their
suffering. That is why we treat all surgical and
injury patients as we would like to be treated, with
plenty of effective, safe pain medication.
The Colorado State
College of Veterinary Medicine has
produced an 18-minute video on pain in animals.
Click here to view it.