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Without speech, pets convey pain through behaviour

Eyal Lichtmann   Nov-01-2018

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We didn’t know that our cat, Toby, was in pain or even discomfort. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Then we took him for a routine dental procedure and Toby’s personality changed.

When we got him home, it was clear to the entire family that something had changed. He seemed like a different cat. His enthusiasm and energy were greater and, rather than lethargic, he was playful and cuddly. He had been in pain and we didn’t even know it. Freed of what must have been some nagging, chronic toothache, Toby was clearly enjoying life more.



This was good news, of course. But it was also alarming. As animal lovers, we all want to know that our pets are healthy and happy. It was a wake-up call for us to remember that animals not only can’t tell us in words when they are troubled, sometimes even their behaviours don’t give us the clues we need.

When I shared this story with a friend, he told me a very sad story (with a happy ending). A family had no idea their dog was suffering from a painful condition. Then a painter who was working on the exterior of their house told them that whenever the family was away, the dog howled—not from separation anxiety, but clearly due to pain. They took the dog to the vet and the condition was remedied fairly simply.

“Many dogs are incredibly stoic,” Dr. Assaf Goldberg told me. “They want their people to be happy and so they don’t want to ‘complain.’ It’s an incredible and challenging part of this amazing inter-species relationship we have.”

Dr. Goldberg works at the RAPS Animal Hospital, which is the full-service, not-for-profit veterinary hospital we operate, the revenue from which is reinvested into all the programs RAPS deliver as an organization, including subsidized animal healthcare.

“Of course, every dog is different,” Dr. Goldberg added. “There are so many ways a dog or cat may be telling you something is wrong.”

Among the most obvious is a sharp change in behaviour. Eating habits might change—but it’s also important to note that they might not. Like people, a sore hip or a skin condition isn’t necessarily going to affect appetite, said the vet. Aggressive behaviour that is out of character is an obvious sign. So is anti-social behaviour in an animal that is usually outgoing.

“Are they not greeting you at the door anymore?” asked Dr. Goldberg. “Do they seem to be avoiding you when they usually can’t get enough attention?”

Sleep habits can also be an indicator—and not always in obvious ways, either. Having trouble sleeping can be a sign. But so can sleeping more than usual—it could mean your dog or cat’s body is trying to heal itself, or they may be finding it difficult to move and sleep is the symptom.

“Self-grooming can be a sign, too,” said Dr. Goldberg. “Licking themselves is comforting for cats and dogs and so excessive grooming may indicate problems. Changes in breathing patterns, unusual posture, trembling—there are so many diverse ways your cat or dog may be indicating a problem.”

Toby’s dental issue was a reminder to my family to watch closely to see what our pets might be telling us. They can’t speak our language, so we need to try to understand theirs.

Eyal Lichtmann is executive director and CEO of the Regional Animal Protection Society.

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