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Managing pain in your dog

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Your dog won't always let you know that it's suffering from chronic pain, so it's your job as its owner to be aware and recognize symptoms. Where acute pain is concerned – trauma pain or post-surgical pain, for example – the need for relief is obvious. But the picture is different, and more complex, in the case of chronic pain in dogs.

We tend to think of chronic pain as short-term pain that lasts a long time. But this view of chronic pain is giving way to a more medically nuanced view of the problem by the veterinary community.

In a recent presentation at the annual convention of the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), Mark Epstein, DVM, President-Elect of the International Veterinary Academy of Pain Management, outlined this newer approach to the treatment of chronic pain in both dogs and cats. He advised that we should think of chronic pain in dogs as a complex disability in itself, and not simply as a problem that arises from some other condition.

Identifying the problem

We interviewed Epstein at the AAHA convention concerning recent trends in the treatment of chronic pain in pets. “The first and most important trend is recognizing that pets have chronic pain,” he said. “Chronic pain has been unrecognized and under-reported.” The reason for this, according to Epstein, is that both pet owners and – until recently – many veterinarians, have made the assumption that if a dog is in pain it will exhibit obvious signs, such as limping, trembling, or vocalizing. While such behaviors are the norm in acute pain, they are usually not present in chronic pain.

So, how do you know that your dog is suffering? Epstein recommends that we look not only at out-of-the-ordinary behaviors, but also at what the dog is not doing. Some examples are:

  • A dog that has always liked being handled and has responded positively to affection, and now seems indifferent to it, or even rejects it
  • Unusual postures or movements
  • A once active, lively dog has become lethargic and seems to avoid the exercise it once loved
  • Unusual weight gain or loss: An arthritic dog will exercise less but eat just as much, resulting in weight gain
  • Cognitive and emotional changes: Chronic pain can cause depression in animals as it can in people, as well as confusion and unusual behaviors
  • A usually well-trained dog relieves himself in inappropriate locations

Treating the cause

The most common cause of chronic pain in dogs is osteoarthritis. Fortunately, there are several approaches to the treatment of arthritis pain, and some that may even improve the underlying disease process.

A class of medications called non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) is the foundation of arthritis treatment. As the name suggests, these medications reduce the inflammation that characterizes arthritis in dogs. While no drugs are without potential side-effects, the NSAIDS are usually well-tolerated. Most dogs with osteoarthritis will respond to at least one of the NSAIDs; many will respond to at least two. A wide variety of NSAIDs are available, and your veterinarian can advise you as to which is best for your pet and its condition.

Other pharmacological agents that may be of help are corticosteroids and opiates. There are serious potential side effects with the long-term use of these drugs, so they are generally used only on a short-term basis. Antidepressants are often helpful, as well as a number of so-called “nutriceuticals,” such as glucosamine/chondroitin and omega-3 fatty acids, that have shown promise in treating the underlying arthritic disease process. But be sure to check with your vet first.

Working with your vet

You can maximize the chances of effective pain treatment in your dog by administering medications exactly as prescribed. It is very important not to add any medications – including acetaminophen (Tylenol®), aspirin, or herbal remedies – without first checking with your vet. Otherwise, serious adverse reactions may occur.

Remember that you are on the frontline when it comes to treating your dog’s chronic pain. Report any changes in behavior, mood, or bodily functions to your vet right away. Treating your dog’s chronic pain is a challenge, but by teaming up with your vet, it’s a challenge you can meet.

Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas, V.M.D.
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