Animals often hide pain, and being able to recognize signs of pain in animals is an essential aspect of responsible animal husbandry. Pain reduces an animal’s quality of life and will have far-reaching negative consequences if it is not properly addressed, ultimately shortening the animal’s life.
Hiding pain is a beneficial evolutionary trait that animals have developed over millennia. It enhances the chances of not being caught by predators, and thus improves the chance of survival. Domestication may have changed animals over time, but pets have preserved this trait to some extent.
Animals do not express their pain as humans do. While they can clearly express acute pain by vocalizing, animals express chronic pain only subtly, mainly through behavioral changes. Dogs and cats, for instance, might engage in abnormal behaviors such as constant licking or excessive cleaning. Unfortunately, some signs of pain are also misinterpreted by pet owners. A slowed movement or laborious standing are often attributed to old age, but may actually indicate an underlying medical condition.
Responsibility of the animal owner
Pet owners must therefore be proficient in identifying signs of pain to ensure that the underlying condition is addressed as soon as possible. Observe your pet and identify what makes up its normal behavioral repertoire. Pay attention to any changes in eating, sleeping and activity patterns throughout the day. When changes occur, focus on them and contact the veterinarian as soon as possible.
Is it safe to give my pet a pain reliever for people, such as aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen, or acetaminophen?
When you see your dog or cat limping or showing other signs of pain, it’s common to think about giving him or her an over-the-counter pain reliever for people. But a pain reliever for people isn’t a good alternative to a pain reliever approved for animals.
Even if data show that a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), like aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen, is safe and effective in people, the drug may not be safe and effective in dogs because the drug may:
- Last longer;
- Be absorbed faster by the stomach and small intestine; and
- Reach higher blood levels.
These differences may lead to toxic effects in dogs, such as stomach problems as well as liver and kidney damage.
You have to be even more careful with cats. Cats are more sensitive than dogs to the side effects of NSAIDs because they aren’t able to break down the drugs as well.
Acetaminophen (brand name Tylenol) is not an NSAID and doesn’t have much anti-inflammatory activity. Acetaminophen is fatal to cats. Cats should never be given acetaminophen because their liver cannot safely break down the drug.
Even if your pet seems painful, don’t give him or her anything in your medicine cabinet until you talk to your veterinarian.
Can a drug for people be legally used in animals?
Yes. Veterinarians can legally prescribe an approved human drug in animals in certain circumstances. This is called an extra-label use.