There was once a time that dogs did not even get pain medicine for procedures like spaying or neutering, says Tufts veterinary pain specialist Alicia Karas, DVM, who currently serves as hospital director of Tufts Veterinary Emergency Treatment & Specialties. But the veterinary community has made great leaps during the last several decades both in recognizing that dogs experience pain and that it can be prevented, or at least eased. Pharmacology has come a long way in reducing dog’s pain, as have non-pharmacological treatments, including massage, physical therapy, and even visits to animal acupuncturists.
But there are also lifestyle steps completely in your control that can make a significant difference in whether your dog feels pain he doesn’t have to. These are especially important in that pain so often limits mobility, which is critical to a dog’s happiness. Dr. Karas offers 14 tried-and-true recommendations.
- As long as your veterinarian okays it, make certain your dog gets exercise regularly. Physical activity releases endorphins, Dr. Karas says, and “brings circulation to tissues. It also strengthens muscles that support joints,” making the joints less vulnerable to arthritis.
- Don’t let your dog be a weekend warrior. “Our dogs are a nation of couch potatoes and weekend warriors, just like we are,” Dr. Karas comments. “A lot of people take their dog to a field on a Saturday and throw a ball for him to fetch until the animal can barely walk. Dogs love it, but that’s not a good way to exercise. It strains the muscles and joints.” Go for consistent moderate activity most days of the week rather than intermittent hard exercise. That will build muscles gradually and safely, without undue strain.
- Don’t walk your dog on concrete during the hottest part of the day in the middle of summer. A dog’s foot pads can take only so much. If you must get him out in the middle of the day, make sure it’s on grass or dirt paths, which stay cooler than sidewalks.
- During the winter months, when there’s snow or ice, shovel your walk, or put sand down — or put boots on a weak or arthritic dog. Leaping through deep snow is a common source of painful injuries for dogs.
- Keep your dog at ideal weight. “Overweight is a huge problem for pain,” Dr. Karas comments, “exacerbating the pressure on joints. In people, a 5 percent reduction in body weight can lead to a 50 percent reduction in back pain. It’s not just the pressure of the extra weight that causes problems. Fat tissue can contribute to inflammation. “So you really want your dog to be lean if he has arthritis, which is an inflammatory disease,” Dr. Karas advises. “When people say it’s too hard to keep their dog trim, I say, ‘Your dog can’t drive to McDonald’s, and your dog can’t open the refrigerator. Whether he consumes excess calories is something you control.’”
- When your dog is exhibiting pain, stay calm. “There is no question that dogs feed off their owners’ emotions,” Dr. Karas points out. If an owner is not relaxed because he is worried about his pet, the dog cannot relax, either, which causes his body to tense and ratchets up his pain. “I see this all the time in the clinical setting,” Dr. Karas says. “An owner brings in his dog, terribly anxious over the animal’s pain, and the dog, reflecting his owner’s mood, is a wreck. But when I tell the owner there are things we can do for his dog, his breathing becomes more regular, his posture relaxes, and the dog begins to relax, too.”
- If your dog has to stay in the hospital for an illness or after a surgery, go see him every day. “The presence of an owner can be really, really calming,” Dr. Karas says. “Owner visits were once discouraged for fear they would get in the way of veterinarians and technicians trying to tend to convalescing pets. But some hospitals now encourage owners to visit. They might even give them pillows so they can sit on the floor with their pets. A dog who’s vocalizing after surgery — once his owner comes in and sits by him, he falls asleep.”
- For dogs with balance issues or arthritis — more common with older pets — trim toe nails, and trim the fur off the bottom of their feet. That provides more traction as they make their way around, so it becomes less likely that they will slip and hurt themselves.
- Put runners on slippery wood and tile floors for better traction, and get a ramp to make it easier for the dog to climb into the car. That will really help save his joints.
- Buy a Zoom Groom. It’s a soft rubber massage tool that stimulates the skin and muscles over areas in pain and triggers endorphin release. That, in turn, relaxes whatever’s hurting. Many dogs love it — as long as you don’t overdo it on the pressure. It should be just enough to keep them relaxed.
- For a dog whose arthritis is so severe that he can’t easily move from a lying to a standing position, buy a harness with handles so you can help him up. It takes the edge off pain and stiffness and can also be used to help climb stairs. “You can’t imagine how many owners tell me they’ve started sleeping downstairs because the dog can no longer manage the staircase,” Dr. Karas says. “But with the lift harness, a lot of owners can give a dog the stability he needs to get from the ground floor to the bedroom — and back down again — without falling.”
- Everybody into the pool — or lake or pond. Just as with people, exercising in water can take pressure off a dog’s joints. Physical therapists who treat animals often know where there’s access to underwater treadmills or pools.
- If your dog is in pain, keep a log to jot down his daily symptoms, along with their intensity (for example, “especially stiff on rising”). Indicate mood and energy level, too. Then show it to the veterinarian who’s treating your pet. The two of you can chart together which therapies are working and which are not — and make adjustments
- Tell your veterinarian that you are concerned about your dog’s pain — whether it is after surgery, during treatment for a disease such as cancer, or over the long term. You’re on the front lines of your dog’s care. Your busy vet will place more emphasis on preventing and treating your dog’s pain if you, the primary caregiver, bring it to his or her attention. You don’t need to feel funny about raising the issue.