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Is Your Pet In Pain?

Pet Expressions of Pain

Know your pet's usual activities and energy levels.  Be alert to changes in behavior or habits indicating that pain is present.  Veterinarian James Clarkson suggests watching for the following to help identify pet pain.

Start with the obvious signs of vocalizing, whimpering, and limping.  Harder to distinguish signs, but signs that are more common may be one or more of these:

  • Lack of appetite
  • Body position is abnormal
  • Posture is pensive or hunched
  • Activity level has decreased
  • Handling your pet elicits a response that isn't typical
  • Acting withdrawn, self-isolating or hiding
  • Movement is painful so they have accidents in the house
  • Shakes or shivers

There are signs to look for when your pet is experiencing pain.  Together you and your veterinarian can identify and help your pet with   pain that may be present. The issue of pain in animals is so critical that the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) teamed up with the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) to develop guidelines and recommendations for veterinarians. The guidelines give veterinarians information and protocols about pain thresholds, causes of pain, medications to resolve pain and treatment recommendations.

"The most common culprits behind pain are trauma and arthritis. Things have come so far in pain management," says Dr. James Clarkson. "Because of that, pets are living better lives." Clarkson, a veterinarian for nearly 35 years says that he's "embarrassed that we didn't do more to address pain in pets during my early years of practice." 

During your visit with your family veterinarian, the doctor will assess your pet. The veterinarian will examine your pet's body and feel each area to check for lumps, bumps, sensitivity, swelling, inflammation, or tenderness. A physical exam includes moving your pet's joints and feeling their response to the movement. Dogs and cats rarely cry in pain during the exam, but your veterinarian can detect areas that they are guarding.

Your pet's exam may also help your veterinarian understand the cause of the pain present. It may be necessary for your pet to have x-rays taken to make a full and accurate diagnosis. Your veterinarian will advise you as to the steps needed to move your pet toward recovery. Other treatments could include medication, physical therapy, or surgery.

There are many different prescription drugs used for pain in pets; some may be used alone, or more commonly, they are used in combination.  "Medications are metabolized very differently by different species.  Dosages can vary due to age, weight and species," says Dr. Clarkson.  For example, many pain medication used in dogs can not be used in cats.  Any medications your veterinarian prescribes must be used exactly as ordered, and you should not use any human medicines without asking your veterinarian. Always discuss the use of herbs or natural remedies with your veterinarian before using them with your pet. Adverse reactions can occur. These substances can also be toxic to pets.

PetsMatter suggests looking for clues in your pet's behavior.  Monitor the following and call your family veterinarian to report abnormalities or changes in your pet's behavior.

  • Limping/ lameness
  • Posture changes
  • Panting
  • Snapping when touched
  • Restlessness or being less active
  • Hesitation going up stairs
  • Lack of appetite
  • Dilated pupils
  • Vocalization
  • Inappropriate urination
  • Sudden behavior changes

    Clarkson advises that he is seeing more pets with dental pain in his office.  He reports that the majority of these pets are over the age of three or four.  Being alert to possible dental pain is also important and he suggests that owners keep an eye on pets for these red flags:

    • An odd head tilt
    • Passing up treats
    • Avoiding crunchy food
    • Eating wet food only
    • Not eating at all
    • Taking longer to eat
    • Drooling
    • Odor involving the mouth
    • Dogs avoiding chew toys or bones

    Dr. Clarkson advises that he is seeing more pets with dental pain in his office.  He reports that the majority of these pets are over the age of three or four. Many pets have severe dental disease and even abscesses without showing obvious signs of their pain. They may chew on one side of their mouth, or may swallow their food whole as they still have a drive to eat.  Symptoms of dental disease are odor from the mouth and inflamed gums. There may be drooling or even sneezing.  Signs of very severe pain that may be a result of dental pain include:

    • Passing up treats
    • Avoiding crunchy food
    • Eating wet food only
    • Not eating at all
    • Taking longer to eat
    • Dogs avoiding chew toys or bones

    "We help clients relate to the need for pain control by comparing the pain humans experience with similar procedures or illnesses," advises veterinarian Spencer Tally.   Your veterinarian will  help you understand how to control your pet's pain.  Pain management is essential to your pet's wellness and also helps the process for a speedy recovery.

    1American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) and American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP). AAHA/AAFP Pain management guidelines for dogs and cats.
    2American Animal Hospital Association. Accredited practices assess pets for pain. PetsMatter Volume 2 Issue 5.
    American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA). Is your pet in pain? PetsMatter, Volume 3 Issue 3.
    4Shaw, Lorrie. What to do when you suspect your pet is in pain, but hiding it.
    5Washington State University's College of Veterinary Medicine. How to tell if your pet's in pain.

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    •           8/29/2017

      I love Balboa Pet Hospital! Balboa Pet Hospital's staff is amazing! The staff is knowledgeable, caring and above all honest! I feel confident that my pets are getting the best possible care there. The staff has always taken time to answer all of my questions and if I think of something after my appointment, I can just email! I know I won’t have to wait too long for response.

      Unfortunately, this year I’ve had to make some really difficult decisions. The compassion the staff showed to both my pet and I made these unbearable times tolerable. I am indebted to both Dr. Del Rosso and (the wonderful) Dr. Ravn for their kindness, compassion and dedication.

      If you are new to the area or just looking for a new vet, please give Balboa pet Hospital a call!

    •           6/5/2017

      LOVE everything about this place!!! The people are all super nice & caring. I never feel like they’re trying to sell me stuff I don’t need. The vets (especially Dr. Alice Chan) are wonderful, I always fee; comfortable coming here whenever Walle has an issue. They even help me file the insurance claims after each visit! Would highly recommended any pet owners to see them for their fur-baby needs.

    •           6/5/2017

      My dog has been a regular patient since 7 years ago. Once in a while we visit other hospitals due to time conflicts. However, we always go back to Balboa Pet Hospital. My dog has bad allergy and the doctors and assistants always follow up with us after the treatments or visits, help us submit the insurance claims. It’s not a cheapest place to go but their patience and caring are irreplaceable.

    •           4/28/2017

      I’m glad to have found Balboa Pet Hospital near my home. It’s definitely a hidden gem! Dr. Chan saw my dog, Oreo, for her skin problem last week, and my three cats, Pepper, Tofu and Cola, today for annual check-up. She’s very patient (especially with Oreo who’s shy to strangers), knowledgeable and approachable. The front staffs are also very friendly and helpful. They are so prompt to reply my email (within a few hours when I checked back my mailbox). All my pets are about 1-year-old and I’ll definitely bring them here for their health issues/checkup in many years followed.

    •           5/4/2017

      Brought my dog here for a checkup and some minor concerns. Dr. Chan was very professional. She got my dog the treatment he needed and answered all my questions regarding my concerns. The rest of the staff were very friendly and gentle with my dog. You could tell that the staff are genuine animal lovers; definitely something you want when you entrust the health of your pet to someone.

    •           5 of 5

      Been bringing our animals to Balboa for over 25 years and will continue because they provide great advice and care. We love Dr. D and staff are really helpful and friendly. Now if I can find medical care for myself like my animals get at Balboa...

    •           5 of 5

      I have been a patron of Balboa Pet Hospital for almost 500 years now (wink). I love Everybody there and feel they are have always been a great resource and the BEST support system for everything pertaining to my pets.


      The staff is very kind and gentle, the doctors are very caring and patient when dealing with my scared cat Lulu. I appreciate the time they took to put her at ease and making this procedure as painless as possible for the both of us. Will definitely be spreading the word. Thank you Balboa Pet Hospital.

      Linda P.

      San Francisco, CA

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