How to Keep your Pet Pain Free (and find a vet who will help!)

A common concern among pet owners is how to keep their dog or cat pain free. Well, in this article I go through my six step plan to keeping your pet pain free, as well as how best to work with your vet to make sure that your pet is as happy, healthy, and comfortable as possible.

 
 

In this #DrAlexAnswers episode I'd like to answer the question sent in Arletta:

“My biggest health concern is to keep my pets pain free, how to do it safely, and how to find a vet that will help me to do it, it's not easy.”

This really is a common concern. We all really wants our pets to be as comfortable as possible and certainly, as they get older especially, the issue of pain can become a serious concern.

6 steps to keep your pet pain free

1 - Know the signs of pain

Step number one is to simply learn to recognize the signs of pain in dogs and cats. I've already done a couple of articles about this (here are the signs of pain in dogs, and here the signs of pain in cats), but it's definitely worth repeating. It’s also important to emphasis that the signs of pain in dogs and the signs of pain in cats are different. Cats can be much more subtle.

Our dogs and cats do let us know when they are in pain and it's important to learn to pick them up at the early stages, rather than waiting until your dog is walking with three legs or your cat is simply unable to move.

2 - Act early

We want to know what the signs of pain are so that we can pick them up in their early stages. And so that leads into my second step, which is to not only pick up the signs of pain in their early stages, but actually take action at this time.

Taking action in the early stages of a painful condition is much better than leaving it until they're in a lot of pain for two main reasons:

  • One is that it might actually mean we're able to really limit, reduce or completely eliminate their pain in the future.

  • Two is to prevent something called pain wind up. This is when the body gets used to sensing pain coming from a certain area and as a result it over interprets any signal. So it might mean that a mild knock is suddenly interpreted by the body as being incredibly painful. Pain wind up can be reversed, but it does take a long time. It takes many months before our pain control is really at its most efficient and most effective.

So if we're leaving treatment too late, our pets may be left in constant pain in the future. Or if pain wind up is present we're basically ensuring that our pets will be more painful than they need to be for at least two or three months, even with appropriate and aggressive treatment.

3 - Adapt your house and pets lifestyle

Step number three to prevent pain in your pet is to make any changes around the house or to your pets lifestyle to minimize the risk of pain. That might be putting rugs and mats down on slippery floors so that they're not falling over and they're not having difficulty getting up. It might be raising their food bowl (using a product like this from amazon)if they've got a painful back or a painful neck. It might be reducing obesity. It might be using a ramp to get up any stairs or to get into the car.

So making changes to make life easier for your pet and to reduce the impact and damage that can make things even worse.

From a lifestyle perspective it might be actually not taking them for as long a walk as they used to have. It might be stopping throwing a ball for them, which encourages fast deceleration or turning suddenly, which could have negative consequences, cause a lot more inflammation and more pain in their joints. Similarly, we can start some physiotherapy or hydrotherapy to help improve their muscles, to help improve their flexibility and to reduce the pain that they're in.

4 - Start dietary supplements

So step four, and again kind of dealing with more chronic long term pain such as arthritis, is to start any joint supplements early. Not only that, use proven supplements. So the best ones that we know through the evidence available is our omega 3 essential fatty acids such as those found in fish oils. Also our therapeutic joint diets have got good evidence behind them to show that they have a big benefit to the comfort levels of our painful pets. Glucosamine and chondroitin, or green lipped muscle supplements are others to consider.

We want to be a little bit skeptical of some other dietary supplements out there. We want to try and use ones that we know have the best chance of working.

5 - Use painkillers if painful

Step number five is to use appropriate painkillers. A lot of people for one reason or the other (and in truth I don’t really understand where this comes from) seem to be really scared to actually use painkillers in their pet. But really they offer the best chance of your pet being pain free and being comfortable and having an excellent quality of life.

NSAIDs for pets are really the cornerstone of any pain management treatment plan.

There are definitely going to be animals that it's not appropriate to use those drugs in or we want to be cautious, but really they are very safe. We want to use these drugs appropriately, but we don't want to deny our pets from having them because of unfounded fears.

There are also alternatives. So things like Gabapentin I've discussed before, tramadol you might have heard of (but does tramadol really work in dogs?). Paracetamol might be another option (but never give it to cats). So we want to use drugs appropriately and take steps to avoid drug side-effects, but we don't want to deny our pets having them because of unfounded fears or scare mongering stories.

6 - Monitor for deteriorating comfort

Finally, step number six to keep your dog or cat pain free is to continually monitor them for signs of pain. Monitor their comfort levels.

If you think your pet is pain free at the moment, just know the signs of pain to look out for and keep an eye out for them. Constantly reevaluate: “are they in pain?” Answer that question on a weekly basis for example, especially if you know your dog is likely to suffer pain in the future due to previous injury or breed.

Equally, if they are in pain and you've started treatment, then monitor them for a deterioration in their comfort level. A lot of our painful conditions are progressive and this means that they will get worse with time. Equally, if we've got an acutely painful condition, say after a surgery, we still want to be assessing whether the pain relief that we're giving our pets is working efficiently.


I have a pain monitoring chart included as part of my free arthritis email course


If your dog is becoming more painful, for whatever reason, we need to be taking action. We don't want to be ignoring, it much like my first few steps. Don't just assume that because you've started a joint supplement or because you're giving them a certain drug that that's all you need to do. We need to monitor what's going on and make changes accordingly.

How to find a vet you can work with

Okay, so the second part of the question was how to find a vet who will help you keep your pet pain free?

Well, on the face of things that might be, or it should be, quite easy because really all vet should be incredibly keen to keep their pets pain free. But we all work in different ways. We all communicate in different ways. So it's important that we're all singing from the same hymn sheet.

  • Communicate your wishes really clearly to your vet. It's important that we know what's important to you and it's important that we know what you’re expecting or what outcome you’re hoping for our pet. Just communicating that this is something that is really important to you is really important to your vet as well. It's important that they know that they really need to make sure that you're aware of all of the issues and all of the potential options out there.

  • Build a good working relationship with your vet. One based on understanding each other and one based on trust. I'd argue that the relationship between you as a pet owner and your vet is one of the most important there is when it comes to the health and well being of your pet for whatever reason, and keeping your pet comfortable is no exception to this. We need to make sure that we trust each other, that we can communicate effectively with each other.

  • Schedule appointments to talk about pain control in your dog specifically. Unfortunately, very often this topic only gets brought up right at the end of a consultation for some other reason, and there's just simply not the time to go into that topic in great detail.

  • Let your vet know if something isn't working. There's no one size fits all strategy. We need to constantly adjust a pain treatment plan. We need to constantly monitor and act if things aren’t working. If you don't let your vet know your dog is still painful then how can they know that changes need to be made, different drugs given or strategies trialed? Vets rely on pet owners telling us these things. It’s vital!

Act early, listen to what your pet is trying to tell you, use all the different strategies available to us and work closely with your vet. Do all of this and there is an excellent chance your pet will be as comfortable and happy as possible!


In #DrAlexAnswers, I answer any dog or cat health related questions you might have.  If there is something you’re struggling with. If you’ve always wondered what the best way to keep your companion healthy is.  If they are ill and you’re not quite clear about something just let me know. Make sure you include #DrAlexAnswers in your question too!

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