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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Do Animals Feel Pain?

When I was in veterinary school, we didn't talk too much about animal pain. It was a topic mostly discussed from the perspective of using analgesics ("pain-killers") to enable us to use lower doses of anesthetics in high-risk surgery patients. That's all I remember. I'm not sure we were taught this, but I do recall having a very definite impression that animals do not experience pain in the same way humans do. I do remember being taught that post-surgical pain is a good thing, at least to a certain extent, because it is nature's way of preventing the patient from doing things they aught not to.

Looking back, these concepts seem barbaric to me, although I admit that I adhered to them in my early years. Like my colleagues in the profession, I simply didn't know any better. The truth is, animals demonstrate pain very differently than people, but things that would be painful to us are just as painful to our dogs and cats. We often don't percieve that they hurt, because they can be quite adept at disguising the pain, especially cats. I have seen fascinating video footage of dogs recovering from painful surgical procedures in which they appear alert and relaxed/happy when a human is in the room, only to demonstrate obvious signs of pain and discomfort when left alone.

I am happy to report that today's veterinarians are fully aware and proactive in dealing with painful conditions. We also have numerous resources in dealing with animal pain, from narcotics and other analgesics, to physical therapy, acupuncture, massage, and local anesthetic agents, among others. There are classes, seminars, and textbooks on veterinary pain management. Veterinarians are trained to recognize potentially-painful conditions and the subtle symptoms on animal pain. Even though we have a hightened awareness of pain in our patients, it can still be tricky to diagnose.

We also know that the concept of pain as a useful mechanism to prevent an injured (or recently-operated-on)pet from doing things he or she shouldn't is mostly flawed. Pain-response studies demonstrate that patients whose pain is well-controlled have significantly shorter healing times. Similarly, arthritic patients whose pain is treated are much more mobile, which allows the joints to benefit from the "physical therapy" benefits of simple activities such as walking and running.