Pet Connection by Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

Pain Relief Myths

Here’s the real scoop on preventing and managing pain in pets

By Kim Campbell Thornton

Andrews McMeel Syndication

Raise your hand if you believe pets who have undergone surgery shouldn’t receive pain relief afterward because they’ll be too active, possibly injuring themselves or tearing their stitches. Believe it or not, people still disseminate that idea.

We’re here to tell you it’s not true. It’s one of many misconceptions about pet pain management that just won’t die. What we do know is that untreated acute pain can delay healing and have lifelong implications for a pet’s physical and emotional well-being. Here are some myths -- and the reality -- on pet pain and its relief and management from three of the nation’s top experts on the subject.

MYTH: That doesn’t hurt me, so it will not hurt you. The experience of pain is different for everyone. Each of us -- and each of our dogs, cats, birds and other animals -- experience pain as individuals, with individual thresholds and sensitivities and in a different context, says Ralph C. Harvey, DVM, a specialist in veterinary anesthesia and analgesia in Knoxville, Tennessee.

A related -- and misguided -- belief is that nonhuman animals and nonverbal humans don’t perceive pain. Think 3-day-old puppies getting their tails docked, livestock enduring castration or newborn baby boys undergoing circumcision -- all with no anesthesia or pain relief. Those long-lasting myths have delivered “a world of hurt” over the centuries and into the present day, Dr. Harvey says.

MYTH: My pet isn’t in pain because he doesn’t cry out. Vocalization is a sign of acute pain, not chronic pain, says Michael Petty, DVM, a certified veterinary pain management expert and owner of Arbor Pointe Veterinary Hospital and the Animal Pain Center in Canton, Michigan. Your pet might not make noise about painful arthritis, but sleeping more and moving less are signs you shouldn’t ignore. With appropriate medication or other management, your senior pet can still enjoy play and walks.

MYTH: Pain medication can be unsafe. That’s both true and not true. “There is no such thing as a safe medication at any dose,” Dr. Petty says. “Heck, a dozen marathoners die each year from drinking too much water. But a careful assessment of comorbidities (other diseases or conditions that exist in addition to what’s causing pain) and proper monitoring makes most pain meds safe.”

MYTH: Pain relief is expensive. No matter how tight your budget, there are things you can do to relieve a pet’s pain. “Weight loss costs nothing,” Dr. Petty says. “A 10 percent drop in weight can have an effect similar to giving an NSAID. Directed exercises and massage given at home cost time, but no money.”

MYTH: A painful experience today is just that -- a painful experience today; it won’t stick with animals. Not so, says Robin Downing, DVM. In addition to being a specialist in pain management, sports medicine and rehabilitation, and the hospital director of the Downing Center for Animal Pain Management in Windsor, Colorado, Dr. Downing also holds a master’s degree in clinical bioethics.

Pain is a multidimensional experience, she says. It’s physiologic, meaning animals feel it in their tissues; emotional, because there’s a component of suffering; and cognitive, meaning they assimilate and remember the experience of pain.

“They certainly can and do anticipate and fear pain,” she says. “If they have a bad pain experience today, it will stick with them and provide a worse and more difficult-to-manage pain experience next time.”

MYTH: Pets will get over pain on their own. Proper management is key. The longer acute pain goes untreated, the more severe its effects. Untreated pain can cause animals -- and humans -- to develop greater sensitivity to pain. Called hyperalgesia, this condition occurs when changes to specific nerve receptors in the body develop an overactive response to pain. What happens is that less and less stimulation is required for pain to occur. That’s why it’s important for pain to be treated and managed from the beginning.


Fishy medicine?

You bet!

Q: I saw a Facebook post recently about a fish being treated at a veterinary clinic. Why? How?

A: Hey, fish need veterinary care, too. People love them and develop relationships with them -- really! -- and fish can develop health problems that require veterinary care, just like any other animal. Fish can be examined, treated with medication, and even undergo surgery.

Fish should see the veterinarian when they lose their appetite, have their fins tightly clamped against their body, hide or spend time in a different part of the tank than where they usually hang out, don’t seem to be swimming normally, display rapid gill movements, or turn rapidly to the side, causing their scales to flash. Other possible signs of illness are a bloated appearance, spots or discoloration on the body, or ragged fins.

A common reason fish get sick is poor water quality. Just as you scoop a cat’s litter box, clean your bird’s cage or wash your dog’s bedding, you also need to perform similar “housekeeping” for fish. Each species has special environmental needs as far as saline concentration, pH levels, water temperature and cleanliness. All of those things need to be monitored, and partial water changes made regularly, to ensure that fish stay healthy.

Fish can also develop bacterial, viral or parasitic infections. To diagnose these, a veterinarian may perform a fecal test, skin -- er, scale -- scraping, or even a gill or fin biopsy to examine cell samples microscopically. Infections can occur when new fish are added to a tank, which is why it’s important to quarantine them first to make sure they’re healthy, just as you would before bringing in a new bird or cat, for instance.

If your fish needs to see a veterinarian, you can seek out a veterinary fish expert at -- Dr. Marty Becker

Do you have a pet question? Send it to or visit


In dog food,

aroma is all

-- What smells do dogs love? Food chemistry experts have identified key aroma compounds in dog foods that have dogs licking their chops. A pilot study, published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, involved feeding six adult beagles each of six foods, one at a time, and determining how much the dogs ate. The dogs had the greatest preferences for three of the foods. Using mass spectrometry, the researchers isolated 12 volatile aroma molecules that correlated either positively or negatively with the dogs’ intake. They found that dogs preferred food containing a molecule that humans associate with an unpleasant, fatty odor, along with molecules that smell sulfury, roasted, smoky and meaty. With further testing of greater numbers of dogs and different breeds, dog food manufacturers may one day cook up a real canine feast.

-- Cats aren’t finicky, exactly. The reason they’re so particular about what they eat is because they learn as kittens to recognize certain textures, flavors and smells as “food” and others as “not food.” That’s why it can be difficult to get them to switch once you find a brand or flavor they like. They’re also fussy when it comes to crumbs. While your dog might lick up every last bit off his plate, a cat will generally walk away when only crumbs are left.

-- Leapin’ lizards! It’s not just a catchphrase. The tails of red-headed agama lizards from sub-Saharan Africa allow them to balance themselves, and to adjust their bodies’ angles mid-leap to make successful landings. And leaping geckos can right themselves when falling by swinging their tails, in much the same way as a cat, and they have sticky hairs on their toes that allow them to stick to surfaces quickly. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker


Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet care experts headed by “The Dr. Oz Show” veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker, founder of the Fear Free organization and author of many best-selling pet care books, and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. Joining them is behavior consultant and lead animal trainer for Fear Free Pets Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.