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Integrative Pet Vet: Cats experience pain

Cats have an amazing ability to mask their pain. They commonly do not show easily detectable signs of pain. But this does not mean they do not experience pain. Pain in cats often goes unrecognized. Unmanaged pain can have significant impacts on health and quality of life.

The experience of pain is a complex combination of sensory stimuli and the mental and emotional perceptions of that sensation. Intensity of pain stimuli depends on the magnitude of the inflammation and the activity of the nerve feedback loops. These factors, along with the perception of pain, make the experience of pain unique to each individual.

Expression of pain in cats is often subtle; however, there is a range of behaviors that can be present when a cat is experiencing pain. Since these behaviors do not always indicate pain, it is important to investigate and make a clear determination regarding pain. Signs of pain in cats range from the more obvious to the more subtle. The painful cat may have changes in their sleeping habits or social interactions. Appetite may be reduced. They may stop using the litter box or have increased frequency of urination. Grooming may be reduced or become excessive to the point of self mutilation. Previously friendly cats may become aggressive. Cats experiencing pain may become restless or become reluctant to move and withdraw. They may no longer want to jump, and they avoid being handled or petted. Sometimes they won’t bear weight on a limb or have an obvious limp. Use of pain scales for scoring pain and monitoring response to pain management can be important.



One of the challenges for recognizing pain in cats is the wide range of signs. The interpretation of signs is complicated by the fact that many of the signs of pain are also signs of other problems. For example, cats with kidney disorders can have reduced appetite even without pain. Cats with age-related cognitive dysfunction can have changes in urination and defecation patterns that affect their use of the litter box. Keep in mind that in some situations there is a combination of pain and other health problems. Ideally, when a cat is showing behaviors or signs consistent with pain, a complete evaluation should be performed to rule out other diseases. A complete evaluation allows for appropriate focus on pain management along with addressing any additional health issues.

Options for pain management for cats are much more limited than the options for dogs. Cats are unable to effectively metabolize some medications or have very delayed times for elimination. This means that for some drugs, the doses need to be reduced and there needs to be longer time between doses. Other drugs need to be avoided. Fortunately, there is ongoing research directed at how to improve pain management with pain medications for cats.



With the limitation in pain management options for cats, it is essential to clearly identify the source of pain. This allows for a focused approach. For example, managing cancer pain can be different than managing myofascial pain or osteoarthritis or dental pain. Common approaches to pain management include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like meloxicam, opioids like buprenorphine and other classes of drugs like gabapentin. Each has its benefit and disadvantages. NSAIDs, for example, can create potential problems for the liver and kidneys. Using combinations of drugs may be helpful for keeping individual drug doses lower and reduce the risks of side-effects from higher doses.

Nondrug options for pain management include acupuncture, manual therapies like osteopathy and massage, herbs, homeopathy and essential oils. Careful selection of the approach or combination of approaches is important and should be based on analysis of the cause of pain. As with drug metabolism, cats also can be slow metabolizing certain herbs and essential oils. This means that some of these products can become toxic if not properly selected and used. Products like glucosamine and chondroitin can be helpful for osteoarthritis issues.

If you think your cat is experiencing pain, contact your veterinarian. They can provide a complete assessment, diagnosis and pain management plan tailored for your cat.

Ron Carsten, DVM, PhD, CVA, CCRT was one of the first veterinarians in Colorado to use the integrative approach, has lectured widely to veterinarians, and has been a pioneer in the therapeutic use of food concentrates to manage clinical problems. He is also the founder of Colorado Animal Rescue (CARE). In addition to his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, he holds a PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology and is a Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist and Certified Canine Rehabilitation Therapist. He practices integrative veterinary medicine in Glenwood Springs.

 


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