Pain relief in dogs and cats is a big priority for vets, owners
November 01, 2009 - 12:00 PM
Brandi Thill uses a sling to help 8-year-old Jasper, who is missing his left front leg and recently underwent surgery to his left hind leg, stand up during a physical therapy session at Chuckanut Valley Veterinary Clinic.
No dog or cat wants to show that it’s weak and vulnerable to predators.
The instinct to protect themselves when they’re ill is the reason that many pets often don’t communicate to their owners that they’re in pain. When they do, it’s tough to know just how badly Fido hurts or how to make him feel better, veterinarians say.
In the early days of veterinary medicine, pain relief was less of a consideration. Pets used to be given hefty doses of general anesthesia during surgery and then were left in a kennel to recuperate with little pain relief or movement for weeks, according to local vets and the Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
That was then, and times have changed — for the better.
On a recent Monday at Burlington’s Chuckanut Valley Veterinary Clinic, Jasper, an 8-year-old beagle missing his left front leg, underwent surgery on his back left leg for a ruptured cranial crucial ligament, the dog equivalent of a torn ACL.
By that Friday, Jasper was on his fifth and final day of inpatient physical therapy, lying in a room with a pain patch stuck to a shaved spot on his back and oral pain medications coursing through his system.
Brandi Thill, a certified canine rehabilitation practitioner and licensed veterinary technician, applied electric currents to his stitched-up leg.
Thill watched Jasper’s muscle for small gesticulations. If the muscle moved too much, Thill reduced the electric current.
Stimulating muscle movement with an electric current can be helpful for dogs that won’t use a limb, Thill said. But Jasper already was using his leg — albeit shakily — and needed the electric current to relieve the pain.
Thill, who has tried the treatment herself, described the sensation as “500 small hands massaging his muscles right now helping remove the inflammation.”
Next, Thill helped Jasper to his feet, pulling slowly on his full-body sling and gently shifting his weight to his weak leg by pushing on his uninjured back leg. Thill finished by icing Jasper’s tired muscles.
Jasper will return once a week for five weeks for rehabilitation treatments, at a cost of about $275, Thill said.
While some pet owners have decided to turn down the expensive treatments — especially during the recent economic turmoil — many are still willing to spend as much money as it takes to relieve their pets’ pain, said veterinary doctor John Zaccardi, owner of Mount Vernon Veterinary Hospital.
“There has definitely been a major paradigm shift in pain control over the last 15 to 20 years,” said Jake Searle, a doctor of veterinary medicine and partner at Chuckanut Valley Veterinary Clinic.
Part of that shift has come from an increased demand from pet owners who are spending more than ever on their pets.
The American Veterinary Medical Association surveys pet owners about every five years to find out how much they spend on veterinary care. In 2006, the association reported that spending for dogs was $16.1 billion, up from $11.6 billion in 2001, $7 billion in 1996 and $4.9 billion in 1991.
Americans also spend a lot on their cats: $7.1 million in 2006, up from $6.6 million in 2001, according to the survey.
Pain relief has been recognized as a major contributor to a pet’s successful recovery, vets say. With proper pain relief, a pet will regain proper muscle movement more quickly, eat and sleep better, and are more comfortable. That may seem obvious, but veterinary medicine has not always been so adept at treating pain.
“Pain control has been an emphasis in early return to function. That is not only (from) a compassion standpoint, but also from a healing standpoint,” Searle said.
Jason Squibb agreed. He is a doctor of veterinary medicine at North Cascade Animal Veterinary Hospital in Sedro-Woolley.
“I just recently graduated in 2008 (from WSU) and basically throughout my training, pain medications were really talked about a lot in our education, which I think is different from the past,” Squibb said.
Dr. Stephen Greene, professor of veterinary anesthesiology at Washington State University, said WSU started an elective course in pain management about seven years ago.
Now vets know the importance of pain management, both for injured animals and those with chronic conditions like arthritis and hip and elbow dysplasia. And vets have more ways to treat dogs and — to a lesser extent — cats, using everything from oral pain relievers, patches and supplements to acupuncture and physical therapy techniques.
One of the biggest changes in pet pain treatment has been the reduced reliance on general anesthesia during procedures, vets say.
Greene said many vets used to rely on general anesthesia, which can have harmful side effects, to keep the animal out of pain during operations. But veterinarians are now coupling lower doses of general anesthesia with more localized pain treatment — for example, epidurals — that block the pain coming from the leg before it is registered by the brain.
Treating animal pain has had a dark side in veterinary medicine. To research pain treatment techniques, veterinarians many times had to inflict pain.
They often would round up dogs that were set to be euthanized at crowded animal shelters and brought them back to the lab where they inflicted pain on them, dosed them with experimental medications and waited to see if the pain diminished, said Charlie Powell, a spokesman for the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine.
“The question comes up: How do you do pain research without causing pain?” Powell said.
Now veterinary doctors at Washington State University find dogs that are already suffering and in need of care for their clinical studies, Powell said. The vets then perform needed surgeries at little cost to the owner in exchange for the pet being enrolled in a pain medication study.
If the animal shows signs of pain after it is administered with the test drug, researchers immediately drop the animal from the study and give it another pain medication, Powell said.
WSU researchers followed that same strategy a few years ago when they tested the popular pet pain reliever Rimadyl, Powell said.
“Not only are there better pain management medications available, but the use of pain management is more widespread by veterinarians,” said Zaccardi, owner of the Mount Vernon Veterinary Hospital.
He said that means pets have a better quality of life and many pet owners may be deciding on treatment rather than euthanasia.
• Elliott Wilson can be reached at 360-416-2147 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.