By John Andersen, DVM
“Cody” is one of the few dogs that I’m actually afraid of. Having dogs and cats try to bite and scratch me is quite literally a daily occurrence. The majority of these are not terrible pets, but just scared and anxious about being in the vet office. Their behavior is mostly predictable, and by using muzzles or towels, we are usually able to do the horrible things we need to do to them (like trimming toe nails and taking their rectal temperature) without getting bit.
But Cody means business from the moment I step in the room. He usually instantly lunges at me, only being held back by his owner’s grip on his leash and collar. The fact that his owner is a young woman who must barely weigh 100 pounds doesn’t help my confidence. With my heart racing, I calmly toss the muzzle across the room for the owner to secure, and then proceed with the examination.
Only today Cody wasn’t growling. His owner’s complaint was that he was vomiting and not eating for five days. By the time Cody came in, he was so weak and dehydrated that he even let me look in his mouth. “He must know you’re trying to help him,” his owner commented. “No, you just waited so long to bring him in that he’s almost dead,” I replied.
Wait a minute. Okay, I didn’t say that. I wanted to say that. I probably just grunted.
“I would have brought him in sooner but he was acting fine until today…well, besides the vomiting and not eating,” said the owner.
Cody ended up having a severe gall bladder infection, but did eventually recover. Any of you gall bladder survivors out there can attest that gall bladder pain is incredibly intense and probably one of the worst types of abdominal pain there is.
But I did believe that, besides the vomiting, Cody was acting fine all week despite the terrible abdominal pain he must have been having. Because, quite simply, animals are tough!
I am no longer surprised by a dog’s or cat’s ability to hide significant pain or illness from their owners. A lot of the problems we see are chronic problems that only recently got so bad that the animals finally started showing their owners signs of distress. And many of these owners are the A+, tuned-in, attentive pet people. It’s just that showing signs of injury or illness is not in our pets’ nature.
Consider their ancestors, wolves and wildcats. Wolves live in packs that maintain a strict pack hierarchy. Show any signs of weakness and you are getting chomped on your way down the ladder. The pressure to maintain social status and pack stability is huge, and therefore you’re probably not going to soften up unless you’re really hurt.
Wildcats (like bobcats and other smaller felines) are more solitary in nature, but are different in that they are not only predators, but also potential prey. If they are walking around looking sick and wounded, they may become a target.
Additionally, our pets are wonderfully simple minded. They tend not to get bogged down with sadness or depression or anxiety about their circumstances. They simply survive.
Here are a few true examples of tough pets I’ve seen:
-Jimbo was a newly adopted dog with a “bad leg.” They owner had taken him jogging a few times before bringing him in for his first check up. I felt something bad in his hip and recommended an x-ray that revealed a shattered hip. He was probably was hit by a car several months prior. Did that stop him from “happily” jogging three miles with his new owner? No way.
-Mini was a cat who had snotty nasal discharge and congestion for years. We found a broken tooth with what turned out to be an infected root that had eaten through the bone into the nasal cavity. When we removed the tooth, Mini was like a new cat.
-Bear was a puppy who had eaten a long piece of dental floss. Part of it was hung up in his stomach, while the other end went down the small intestine. As his intestines pulled the dental floss down with increasing pressure, it started to cut through his intestinal walls. The morning of surgery, he still managed to challenge his brother to a couple of games of chase!
-Ruby is our own dog who we spayed in the fall. A spay is an open abdominal procedure. That night I set an alarm to give her pain meds at 1 a.m. When I opened her crate, she launched out at me wagging her whole body as if nothing ever happened.
-Minter was a stray cat found with two broken femurs (the thigh bones in the rear legs). He would try to stand up on his broken legs, all the while purring loudly at the newfound attention he was getting. He was the nicest cat despite what must have been terrible leg pain (his legs were fixed and he was quickly adopted).
These are just a few examples of animals behaving quite differently than you or I would given the same circumstances. Animals feel pain just like we do, but for many reasons, they just don’t show it. As a veterinarian, I know that many owners are challenged with the delicate balance of “I don’t want to bring him in if it’s not a big deal” and “I wish I hadn’t waited so long.” Fortunately, if you use your instincts and your common sense, you will likely be a great advocate for your pet’s health. If you ever have concern, call your veterinarian and he or she can help you determine if you have a problem.