When I take my elderly mother to the emergency room, the nurse asks how much pain she is in, on a scale of 1 to 10. There is a chart with pictures of little smiley faces, neutral faces, and grimacing faces to help a person — perhaps a child — determine a number. Pain management is an important part of human medicine.
Despite what the 17th century philosopher and naturalist René Descartes said about animals being merely organic machines, it’s clear to me they feel pain in a manner similar to us. But we can’t ask Fido or Felix to tell us what they are experiencing. That point has been abundantly clear to me recently because my 11-year old mutt from the dog pound, Buster Brown, is having arthritic pain in several weight-bearing joints. He gets up from a lying position with difficulty, and he takes the stairs slowly and only when he must.
“In veterinary medicine, we have pain scales similar to what they use in the ER, but they are based on our observations,” Dr. Raelynn Farnsworth told me. Farnsworth instructs vet students at Washington State University’s veterinary teaching hospital.
Farnworth showed me a four-point scale with sketches of dogs in various positions and written descriptions of the way the dogs are behaving. Vet students are trained to assess animals and locate them on this type of pain scale.
“We go on what we can observe, our examination, and what the owners tell us about how the animal is behaving at home,” Farnsworth said.
Practicing veterinary medicine rather than the human variety has other challenges than assessing pain. Medications that are helpful to dogs are not all good for cats. Drugs good for people can kill an animal.
“You’ve got to check with your vet before you treat your animal for pain,” she said. “One thing your vet may discuss with you is pre-treating your animal, say before a big walk, if you know he’s likely to be sore afterward.”
The good news is that veterinarians now treat pain more aggressively in animals and there are also a wider variety of medications that are available to help.
“Many of the pain meds we use now were new or not available at all when I started practicing 21 years ago,” Farnsworth said.
Years ago, it was sometimes considered good to keep an animal in a moderate amount of pain after surgery, so the animal wouldn’t move around a lot and tear out stitches. But those days are long gone. Veterinarians treat pain aggressively now. That strikes me as more merciful.
Fortunately, the news from my household is good. Buster Brown has been taking an anti-inflammatory and two supplements in recent weeks and he is getting around much better. He goes by me at a canter when we are outside, he runs up and down the stairs, and he stands up from a lying position without the difficulty he was displaying earlier this fall. I’m greatly relieved — I like to think that pain isn’t bothering him nearly so much, and I hope I can keep him in the land of the living a good while longer.
Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.