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Helping Older Pets with Pain

"Why do older pets slow down?" This is one of the most common questions a vet is asked by families with older pets.


Many believe this is a regular thing that happens with ageing. Just as we tend not to be quite as active as we age, the belief is that animals do the same thing.


And to an extent this is true, but very often families see this change happening at around seven years of age - which is about the equivalent of a 35-40-year-old human. Not the time of life when we'd expect to be written off and retired! This is the peak performance age for many sporting disciplines and jobs. 


So, while it is reasonable to assume that pets do slow down gradually, the age where this is more likely is 10-12 years old.


So How Come Pets Age Seven Seem to Slow Down?

The sad answer is that many are struggling with some undiagnosed painful illness or injury. Pain, as anyone who has suffered, will tell you, is horrible. Back pain in people, for example, will completely change the attitude and behaviour of someone who is suffering from it. And dental pain will drive the sufferer quite mad.


The two most common causes of pain in pets are:

1. Dental disease - this affects a massive 80% of pets over the age of three years.

2. Arthritis - We estimate that around 10% of all pets struggle with this chronic problem.


And many pets are struggling with both conditions.


But there are many more problems that can cause physical or emotional pain in animals. From cancer to loss of vision or hearing. Suffering comes in many forms.


The good news is that much can be done to cure or alleviate pain. And the difference for a pet that has struggled with pain for weeks, months or even years is incredible.


Owners of cats and dogs that have had painful teeth removed frequently arrive at their postoperative follow-up appointment with stories of incredible transformation. They report energy and exercise levels that are similar to what they saw as a puppy or kitten!

It's that big an impact.

If you feel your pet is experiencing pain and requires more specialist care, explore our Palliative Care services to see how we can help you.


Pets and How They Show Pain

Once upon a time, people did not believe that animals experienced pain. Thankfully these days are gone, and we now know that the opposite is true, animals experience pain in precisely the same way that we do. The reason it took us a while to figure this out is that animals show their pain very differently from how humans do.


Our current belief about why pets seem not to show pain as much is that animals such as rabbits and guinea pigs instinctively hide their injuries and illnesses because being seen as weak would single them out as vulnerable to any nearby predators. They may as well paint a giant target on their side and say "come get me". Not a good idea. 


And while predatory animals like cats and dogs are less vulnerable, any show of weakness or illness in the wild is an invitation to lose territory or be abandoned by the pack. So there are excellent self-preservation reasons why animals do not show pain in the same way we do.

For more information on recognising pain in your pet, read our comprehensive guides here:


Pet Pain & Guilt

One of the worst things a pet owner can experience is the sense of guilt that often comes when the penny drops that a pet has been struggling with an issue for months or years.


In one case, we had a dog owner (who had a Labrador dog) come back for a recheck. When he entered the practice, it was clear something was wrong. His dog looked great, but the owner seemed miserable. 


All was well on the recheck, the dog was in high spirits, and his stitches were healing up marvellously after having a rotten tooth removed.


His owner, however, was obviously suffering from some emotional pain. As he told his story, it became clear why. His dog had a basket of toys at home. And three days after surgery, he had gone to his basket and thrown out all of his toys desperately searching for something. At first, his owner had wondered what was going on. But when he saw the particular toy his dog had retrieved the penny dropped. 


His dog had found, at the bottom of the basket, a chew toy that had previously been his favourite. A toy he was inseparable from since he was a puppy, but one that he had stopped playing with five years prior. And in that moment, his owner realised that his dog had lived with a toothache each day since he broke his tooth five years previously. And now, he felt terrible.


There was not much anyone could say to make him feel better. Except that in his defence, dogs and cats do not show pain in obvious ways. And most other families would likely have missed the problem too, accepting that pets just slow down as they get older. 


The reality is that unless you are a trained professional, then why would you know what to look out for?


Treatment to Manage Pain in Pets

There are many ways to control pain. In dental cases, it can almost always be cured by removing a painful tooth or infection. In other situations (like arthritis) we can offer medication, supplements, laser therapy, acupuncture and physiotherapy.


There is no reason that any animal should live in pain as it ages. Our objective when caring for senior or geriatric animals is to ensure they have a happy, healthy and comfy last few years doing the things they always liked to do. And we work closely with families to help achieve this.


What's The Take-Away Message?

Firstly, pets do not display pain in the same way we do. They are secretive and show the problem in subtle ways. So, it's important to look for changes in behaviour or activity as clues that there may be a problem.


Secondly, pets will keep eating despite most kinds of pain. So do not rely on appetite to know if an animal is in pain or not.


Thirdly, pain comes in many shapes and sizes.


The best thing you can do for your pet as it gets older is to have a six-month check-up with a vet trained in managing older pets. At Roundwood Pet Hospice, we can come to your home and we will always handle your older pet gently, with care and love because we understand that old pets deserve a little bit extra time, love and attention. We can also offer tele-advice via a zoom call when appropriate to do so.


To book an appointment to discuss pain management or anything discussed in this article, call us on 0333 041 8200 or request an appointment.
Dr Helen Beattie, an end of life care veterinarian

Worried your pet may be struggling? Reach out to our team today.

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