Cats instinctively mask injury and illness to protect themselves from predators. Unfortunately, their ploy may work too well and leave them suffering with undetected and unrelieved pain.
But Sheilah Robertson, DVM, BVMS, PhD, MRCVS, DECVA, DACVA, a member of the AAHA/AAFP Pain Management Guidelines task force and adjunct professor at the University of Florida believes awareness of chronic pain is making life more comfortable for our feline friends. “Things that were put down to ‘inevitable’ with old age are being diagnosed,” she said. “[Veterinarians] are also embracing new drugs and realizing that cats are good candidates for acupuncture and physical therapy.”
What Is Chronic Pain?
Chronic pain differs from acute pain in that it will persist for several months, years, or even the rest of your cat’s life. Common causes include osteoarthritis, cancer, periodontal diseases, inflammatory bowel diseases, post-declaw syndrome, and feline lower urinary tract disease.
Robin Downing, DVM, chair of the AAHA/AAFP Pain Management Guidelines task force and director of AAHA-accredited Downing Center for Animal Pain Management in Windsor, Colo., emphasized the importance of treating pain immediately and continuously. “It takes less effort, less medication, less intervention to take care of pain in its early stages versus waiting until the animal is in excruciating pain,” she said, and added, “For chronic pain patients, ‘as needed’ means ‘every single day.’”
Robertson explained that if chronic pain is not controlled consistently, it can lead to a “wind-up” phenomenon that causes the cat to feel more pain, even if the illness is not getting worse.
The Difference Between Cats and Dogs
Going Beyond Pills
Your veterinarian may recommend using complementary therapies in addition to, or instead of, medications to relieve your cat’s pain. Various physiotherapy techniques (including underwater treadmills!) are used to help painful cats. Other options include:
- Chiropractic manipulation
- Tissue mobilization
- Specific food, such as a joint-specific diet
Although cats experience pain in the same way dogs and people do, Downing said, “Cats do not metabolize many medications like these other species.” Because of this, there are fewer drug options for cats. Prescribing nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), in particular, can present challenges.
“NSAIDs are the veterinary profession’s favorite pain management medication,” she said. An NSAID short-term may serve a feline patient well … but with [complementary] options available, the long-term use of NSAIDs in cats is probably a questionable option.”
Another class of drugs called opioids has gotten a bad reputation for causing mania in cats, but Downing dispelled this myth and said these drugs, including morphine, are not a risk when prescribed at appropriate doses.
Is Your Cat in Pain?
Your cat might show pain with very subtle behavior changes, so it is important to become familiar with your cat’s routines. See “Resources” for additional information on detecting pain.
Pain relief will speed healing and improve your pet’s quality of life. If you notice signs, make an appointment with your veterinarian. Before prescribing medications, your veterinarian may run blood tests. If medication is prescribed, periodic blood testing will be done to monitor your cat’s response.
Never give human pain relievers to your pets. Some human drugs, such as acetaminophen can be lethal to cats. “Even though many of the medications we utilize for cats and dogs in pain come to us straight from the human medicine discipline,” says Downing, “it is critical for pet owners to understand that it is completely inappropriate, life-threatening and potentially fatal to reach into their own medicine cabinet for pain relievers for their pets. The only medications that should be used for pet pain are those prescribed by the pet’s veterinarian.”
Clues to Detecting Fluffy and Fido’s Painful Secrets
AAHA/AAFP Pain Management Guidelines
This article originally appeared in PetsMatter Volume 3 Issue 5, published by the American Animal Hospital Association. Copyright © 2009 AAHA. Find out more.