Veterinarians Asked to Focus on Animal Pain Awareness in September

September 12, 2016
Sarah Handzel, BSN, RN

As human healthcare providers focus on pain management in September, a veterinary group is asking veterinarians to help raise awareness of the key signs of animal pain.

Pain isn’t just a human phenomenon, and yet when animals feel pain they rely on humans to notice and get help. Sometimes, however, noticing pain in a pet can be tricky. That’s why the International Veterinary Academy of Pain Management is marking the second-annual Animal Pain Awareness Month in September. The designation is timed to coincide with the human-focused Pain Awareness Month.

The IVAPM says it’s important to discuss animal pain with owners — doing so can help make them more active participants in their pet’s care. There are lot of things to look for when assessing pain in a companion animal, but unfortunately many veterinarians don’t perform a pain assessment during a physical examination. Often, the owner’s statement of “he’s getting older, so he’s slowing down” is accepted at face value without further inquiry into potential physical problems.

Veterinarians can look for subtle changes in a pet’s attitude and activity level that can be indicators of pain. According to Boston University, animals in pain usually show one or more of the following signs, regardless of the type of pain:

• Attraction to the painful area

• Increased blood pressure and heart rate

• Pupillary dilation

• Respiratory pattern changes

• Increased skeletal muscle tone

• Altered electroencephalogram response

Acute pain is usually characterized differently from chronic pain. When an animal is in acute pain, they will typically display signs like protection of the painful area, vocalization, licking, biting, scratching or shaking of the area, restlessness, pacing, sweating, and a respiratory rate that’s increased. Chronic pain, on the other hand, might be displayed through limping, licking the affected area or areas near it if the affected area can’t be reached, reluctance to move, loss of appetite, personality changes, and a dimming of eye brightness. Other signs of both acute and chronic pain may be present that are not listed here.

A pain treatment plan should be formed that takes into account the animal’s species, breed, age, surgical history, individual behavioral characteristics, health status, and availability of treatment drugs and techniques. Professional judgement should be used regarding appropriate medications or other treatments, and it might be necessary to tailor the treatment approach to include both pharmacologic and nonpharmacological methods of dealing with pain. If pharmacologic methods are used, it’s important to keep in mind that the effects of medications can vary greatly depending on the individual, and it’s therefore important to monitor animals carefully for signs of pain improvement. Medication dose and frequency may need to be adjusted depending on the unique needs of the animal.

In treating pain, the individual animal must be taken into consideration — there isn’t a one-size-fits-all treatment course. Beyond pharmacologic intervention, animals in pain should be kept clean and be exposed to as little stress as possible. If the animal is a companion animal, exposure to their owners can be therapeutic. All animals should be subject to good husbandry practices and receive proper nutritional support. With proper veterinary practices and recommendations, pain in animals can be effectively recognized and treated.