Patients’ pain is no different for pets

LAST weekend I did something really stupid – I found myself playing rugby.

This is something I did frequently in my youth – and almost as frequently found myself in hospital having surgery. After a 13-year layoff, I was cajoled out of retirement by a friend, who had organised a charity match to celebrate his 50th birthday.

In a manner truly reminiscent of the old days, I managed to suffer a fairly spectacular injury and dislocated a shoulder, previously weakened by an altercation with the back end of a cow. As such I found myself in Wansbeck Hospital accident and emergency for a significant portion of Sunday afternoon.

The staff were excellent, working their way patiently and methodically through an array of the damaged and compromised. In the waiting area the degree of pain, discomfort and suffering was evident in the battery of moans and groans, tears and even an occasional scream. I must confess to willingness on my own part to grimace whenever the triage nurse looked in my direction in the hope that he might take pity and arrange a slightly more urgent dose of morphine. None of the other patients seemed overly concerned about masking their discomfort.

At the time, very few thoughts beyond what my shoulder felt like were passing through my mind, but post-morphine and with my shoulder back in joint, I got to thinking about the assorted patients in our waiting room.

On the whole, the animal patients in pain present in one of two ways – very noisy or very quiet. Invariably the yowling dog or squawking cat is addressed with a great deal of sympathy by all present. It is, however, equally the case that the rabbit with bloat or the bird with a fracture goes unnoticed by all but their own perceptive owner.

We must be careful not to anthropomorphise. Is it the case that the rabbit or bird is suffering any less just because it is masking its symptoms?

Of course, this isn’t the case, but rather a reflection of generations of evolutionary pressure during which weak, compromised and injured prey animals are recognised as an easy meal and picked off readily by predators.

This apparent stoicism in our pets has implications to both owners and vets.

For vets, it is essential that adequate pain relief is used in all our patients, even those demonstrating few outward sides of discomfort.

And for owners, it is important to work on the presumption that, ‘If it would be painful for me, it must be painful for him’, and seek prompt veterinary treatment for your pet no matter how brave they appear.