Fear is worse than pain in veterinary patients

September 27, 2017
Dani McVety, DVM
Dani McVety, DVM

Dr. Dani McVety is owner of Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice and In-Home Euthanasia in Lutz, Florida.

As people, we can anticipate relief for the physical pain we feel. Animals dont have this luxury. Heres how to deal with pain coupled with fear, and how pet owners help you heal the hurt.

Photo: Getty ImagesPain and fear: A dreaded combo

Think about the pain of a broken arm. Now think of the negative emotions that may come with it: Anxiety about the impending surgery, recovery, loss of time with children and loved ones and so on. Those negative emotions will only amplify the physical pain I feel. As a person, though, I know that medical attention will help reduce or eliminate my pain.

Animals don't have this luxury.

In her book Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior, Temple Grandin, PhD, says, “The single worst thing you can do to an animal emotionally is to make it feel afraid … fear is so bad for animals I think it's worse than pain.” And this is one of the most important parts of the end-of-life process: not only addressing physical pain, but stress, anxiety and fear as well.

Consider the senior or geriatric patients you see. Many of our arthritic or immobile pets appear more agitated by their inability to stand up rather than the pain that standing up elicits. They may not understand why they can't ambulate, which in turn leads to excessive painting, whining, crying and additional physical pain as they attempt to move. Many times, the mental battle is bigger than the physical battle with our patients.

Relieve suffering by educating pet owners

These are concepts I discuss with families every day. Veterinary hospice care centers on addressing pain and any other mental stressors that may be present. Because of this, pet owners become our greatest source to identify new developments in the pet's condition early. They will usually feel their bond is so strong (and it often is!) that they can sense the discomfort. With a little retraining and education on how animals may react and perceive pain and anxiety, we can take a big leap forward to make the end-of-life period as pain-free and fear-free as possible. 

We also need to teach pet owners about the differences between discomfort, pain and suffering. Euthanasia is not just about ending suffering that's occurring at that moment, but rather about preventing it from occurring. And with a better understanding of mental and physical pain, clients feel better equipped to make that important decision with the guidance of their veterinarian.

Dr. Dani McVety is owner of Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice and In-Home Euthanasia in Lutz, Florida.