Is Your Senior Pet in Pain?

    A Guide to Your Pet’s Quality of Life

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    There’s this one: I don’t think my dog is in pain, because he doesn’t yelp. Or this one: My dog still chases squirrels. How could she have arthritis? Both are logical conclusions from attentive, loving pet owners. However, people and animals express symptoms of pain differently.

    Pets may cry out from pain in only the most severe or sudden causes. More often, our pets’ symptoms of pain are subtle and can wax and wane. Here’s what pain might look like for dogs: reluctance to get up, lagging behind on walks, reluctance to jump and climb (onto furniture or into the car), hesitating at the top or bottom of stairs before proceeding, difficulty squatting to urinate or defecate, slow rising from a resting position, decrease in favorite activities such as playing with a toy, no longer greeting you at the door, licking at a particular area of the body, and changes in personality, such as becoming more withdrawn or more irritable. For cats, the symptoms may be even more subtle, for example: sleeping more, decrease in grooming behavior, decrease in jumping (frequency or height), becoming more agitated, and even inappropriate urination or defecation.

    Any change in your pet’s behavior, especially as it gets older, should be suspect and should be discussed with your veterinarian. Together, you can determine where and why your pet may hurt. The good news is there are many options to help your pet.

    How do we relieve pain in pets?

    Naturally, the answer to this question depends on the source and cause of the problem. The greatest success is achieved by employing multiple therapies. Degenerative joint disease or osteoarthritis is a very common occurrence in pets (especially as they age) and it is successfully managed every day in veterinary practices. When I began practicing twenty-five years ago, it was not uncommon to consider euthanasia because a pet could no longer tolerate the pain and immobility of arthritis. Treatment options were much more limited at that time. Those days are long gone with many affordable options adding years to the lives of our beloved friends.

    Weight Management This may sound simple, but who can resist those big brown eyes asking for a little treat? The following statistics may help. Purina conducted a life span study comparing lean-fed dogs to a control group. Median life span was increased by 15 percent or almost two years, in the lean-fed dogs. That is comparable to a person living an extra ten to fifteen years. Dogs in the study also enjoyed an average of two years, compared to the control group, before developing geriatric problems, such as arthritis. The results of the study were so impressive that the veterinary community adjusted body condition charts to reflect
    an even slimmer silhouette as ideal.

    Exercise and Physical Therapy It is important for a pet to remain mobile. When joint discomfort is present, it becomes even more important to keep the surrounding, supporting muscles fit. In most cases, simple daily walks work wonders. Specific exercises may be added such as walking up and down hills. The field of veterinary physical therapy is exploding with new treatments designed to be safe and fun for your pet.

    Nutritional Supplements These include vitamins, minerals, and herbs that are in addition to your pet’s good diet and add further value. Supplements are not drugs, so they do not undergo the same rigorous testing, approval, and monitoring by agencies such as the FDA. That means they are readily available, but a buyer-beware approach must be taken. Fortunately, there is good clinical-use history and some research to guide veterinarians. Supplements containing glucosamine and chondroitin are frequently recommended to ensure your pet’s diet contains the nutrients needed to retain healthy joint and muscle tissue.

    Medications Veterinary medications (drugs) are regulated by the FDA, meaning they are tested for safety and efficacy in your pet. Drugs from the class known as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (or NSAIDs) are the most commonly prescribed. There are several drugs in this class which have been approved specifically for dogs and cats, and many more which have been developed for people. The best part is they work quickly, often within just hours. They are prescribed for acute pain, from an injury or surgery, as well as for chronic conditions. Other classes of medications, such as cartilage protective agents and opioids can be used to block pain pathways. All medications and supplements can have unwanted side effects. It is important to discuss safety and side effects with your veterinarian to make the best choice for your pet. Sometimes human medications are used in pets. Although they have not undergone the FDA approval process for pets, there is a history of clinical use and research guiding your veterinarian. Human medications (and supplements), including those available over the counter should never be used in pets without consulting your veterinarian. A simple aspirin can be dangerous to a dog and deadly to a cat if not dosed and administered properly.

    Alternative and Complimentary
    Therapies
    There are wonderful modalities such as acupuncture, laser therapy, or spinal manipulation (chiropractic adjustment) that can be added to your pet’s pain management plan. Considering the unique anatomy, physiology, and behavior of different animals, treatments should be performed
    by a licensed and certified veterinarian (or licensed veterinary technician under their supervision) who is specially trained and educated in their application. These options are increasing in numbers and availability. Many Richmond-area veterinarians are certified.

    Successful pain management for your pet starts with recognizing the signs and symptoms of discomfort. The treatment plan should be developed in consultation with your veterinarian. The most successful plans will include multiple therapies. The prognosis for helping your pets live longer and happier is excellent.

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    Kelly Gottschalk, DVM
    Kelly Gottschalk, DVM, co-founder of Wellesley Animal in the far West End, has a passion for and background in zoo animal medicine. She serves as the Virginia Veterinary Medical Association’s (VVMA) legislative chair.