Q: Our 6-month-old Lab puppy, Bella, was spayed last week. Afterwards, she acted like nothing was wrong. I expected her to be a little sluggish, but she was super-active! I had a similar surgery last year and couldn’t walk for a week. Do pets feel pain the way we do?
A: I can understand how observing an exuberant pup who has just had her uterus and ovaries scooped out with a scalpel would make you wonder whether they feel things the same way we do. Sometimes I wonder the same thing –– usually after they’ve bolted after a cat, jumped a few fences, and ripped out some stitches along the way.
Pets do experience pain. They simply have a different way of dealing with it.
All animals hide their pain and distress. This is an effective evolutionary adaptation designed to help them avoid predators when they’re sick or injured. Even pets, divorced from their wild cousins though they’ve been, have never lost that natural skill.
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This evolutionary advantage, combined with a) their desire to please their human family, b) their excitement in our immediate presence, and c) their inability to communicate verbally, means our pets don’t display pain in ways humans would readily recognize.
As humans, we’re inclined to anthropomorphize our pets. We tend to resort to our human understanding, limited though it may be, to fathom their feelings on the subject of pain (among others). Which means they’re more likely to go without proper pain relief.
The good news is that veterinary medicine has made great strides in treating pain relief. We’ve learned that pain can be measured using simple metrics adapted from human pediatric medicine. After all, babies don’t talk or show pain like human adults do, and yet we know they feel pain.
As to your Lab puppy: Pain scoring systems in pets reveal that even young, excitable pets like Bella experience pain after surgery. They may drool, their heart rate may rise, they may cry or whine. That’s why all pets should receive pain medication –– ideally before, during and after surgery –– regardless of their visible reactions.
Dr. Patty Khuly has a veterinary practice in South Miami. Her website is drpattykhuly.com. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.