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Chronic Pain Sneaks Up On You

by Katie McKay | Jan 13, 2016

Margaret, age 11ish. Margaret has never been super-enthusiastic about anything, but on a normal day she would play with her ball and follow us from room to room when she couldn’t see us. She wasn’t. She became picky about her food and despite the temptation of canned food, she would pick it out and leave the dry. She lost 5lbs even though we were hand feeding her.

Dakota, age 12ish. Dakota had an allergic reaction, went to the vet and healed up, however he developed diarrhea and refused to eat. He returned to the vet and was diagnosed with pancreatitis. He gradually began eating but continued to be very picky about his food. He lost 6 pounds.

Maddie, age 9. “She just seems to have a little more trouble getting up? She’s acting fine, eating, drinking, etc. Not even every day, but just not herself.”

Teddy, age 15. Mom gave him a bath in the sink and noticed that his tummy was firm and his back was hunched. He had been crying at the top of the stairs and they were carrying him up and down in the last couple weeks but attributed it to his blindness.

These dogs have something in common and what sounds like serious illness, like cancer, is actually chronic pain, which has finally gotten to the point we can recognize it. It is something that often gets overlooked and can be very difficult to identify in your pet. The stories above may seem obvious, but I can’t tell you how many times someone has said their pet is not in pain, when they indeed are. We humans assume that if our dog is in pain, they will cry out or yelp. That’s rarely the case. Chronic pain is dull, throbbing, always-there ache that doesn’t come out as an Oh! %#^$ I stubbed my toe, that’s acute pain. It’s more of a tired, mopey, crabby, tired, old, cranky, I’m fine pain and we often don’t know there’s a problem until it’s fixed. Your senior dog starts chasing squirrels again, she may suddenly have her voracious appetite back or starts jumping on the couch again. That little “something’s not quite right” voice in your head or the pit of your stomach, it’s probably spot on.  Consider this a reason to talk to your vet about trying some pain medications. The good news is that you should be able to see an improvement within a few days. Unfortunately, most people are under the impression that most pain medications are so dangerous its best not to try them at all. NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatories) tend to be the biggest culprit. Bear with me for a moment….

“In the old days” if your dog was in pain, they would be prescribed steroids. Steroids are great, for things like pain caused by inflammation. However, if you took them for a long time, they came with a host of side effects that can be very undesirable. Enter NSAIDs. They work to reduce inflammation and relieve pain, but without many of the side effects associated with steroids. Yes NSAIDs still have side effects, all drugs do. The point is that you are aware of those potential side effects (your vet educates you) and that you are provided with the education to administer them safely.

Easy right? Actually yes!

  1. Read and LISTEN to the instructions about NSAIDs. Be aware of the potential side effects and STOP the medication immediately if any of those symptoms arise. Even if your dog has a reaction, the chances of long-term problems are minimal if you know what to look for and what to do. Most adverse events are related to people who either wait too long to report side effects, give more than the prescribed dosage or refuse recommended monitoring….in other words, most are avoidable. (Keep in mind they are still not appropriate for all pets).
  2. If your dog is not an appropriate candidate for NSAIDs, there are other options! Tramadol, Gabapentin, Adequan to name a few. Alternative therapies are now available to our dogs too, Chiropractors, acupuncture, laser therapy and physical therapy to name a few.
  3. Cheaper, over-the-counter medications like Aspirin, Tylenol and Advil are not only less effective but far more dangerous. You can actually poison your dog with these medications.
  4. Last but certainly not least, the best treatment/prevention for your dog is absolutely FREE!!!  Yep, no cost at all!  KEEP YOUR PET A HEALTHY WEIGHT.

The more levels you can attack pain at, the better. If you apply multiple levels of management and combining of different methods for chronic pain, the less you will need of any one and the better your overall pain control. Educated pet owners make good decisions, we all want that.

Here are some other methods to use along with prescription medications

  1. Warm water swims. Right here in Durham, NC there is an indoor pool for dogs to use. The pool is kept at a controlled, comfortable temperature for your dog and even has a mobile veterinarian who specializes in rehab that will work with your dog in the pool.
  2. Therapeutic beds. They can be temperature controlled, specialized with orthopedic or memory foam and liquid and stain resistant.
  3. Boots or other devices for slippery floors. And now I grant you permission to Google! Lots of things out there on the market. You’ll have to do the research to see what’s best for your pet.
  4. Physical barriers. When your pet gets older or is injured, it’s a good idea to prevent them from jumping on/off furniture and in and out of the car. Margaret knows to wait for us to help her into the car, she even gives us her paw as she waits. Block off stairs with baby gates and use ramps where you can’t avoid the stairs.

Often this is something we deal with as our dogs age, but surgeries can cause chronic pain too, especially during the healing process, so make sure your dog is covered. The same rules apply here, medications and alternative therapies!

Margaret is my rescue.  It was six weeks balancing medications and finding what worked for her and at what dose, but she is eating and cleaning her bowl now, playing with her ball and taking her twice a day walks (only a couple houses and back). We give her NSAIDs and Tramadol for pain, but we can see a difference when she doesn’t get her walks, which is good for us and for her. She also sees a veterinary chiropractor.  Yes she’s spoiled, but she’s happy and pain free.

Dakota is walking too and taking Tramadol three times daily since he can’t have NSAIDs. He’s back to eating again too and playing with his toys. We were so focused on his pancreatitis and allergies that we missed his pain issues…until they were fixed.

Maddie favors her leg if she doesn’t get her NSAID, but she’s only taking half the dose (once a day instead of twice a day), we have some room to increase it if she needs it.

Teddy was started on an NSAID. After a week or so, she discontinued it. She hasn’t noticed much of a difference so for now, we wait and watch.

This is hard guys, I know that. But remember that you know your dog the best and when something isn’t right. Talk to your vet, talk to your friends and I’m happy to help. Brainstorm or just talk it out with someone. Sometimes fresh eyes and ears are all that is needed!

For more information on how to help dogs as they age and management of pain, click here, here, here, here....and many more! 

Cheers!

Katie