It was a very typical Monday morning. Walking into the hospital a few minutes late, I could see from the deep exhale of our receptionist that it was already a crazy morning. The newest addition to the packed schedule? A young Labrador had been run over by a car.
You could tell right away that “Hunter” was a sweet boy. Just two years old, he was fit and well socialized and made the best eye contact when you looked at him. Unfortunately, he was also what we call a knucklehead. Hunter’s family lives out in the country, and when his dad was driving up their driveway, Hunter ran right in front of their pickup truck. As one of our nurses described it, “Dr. Andersen, Hunter didn’t get run over by a pickup truck, Hunter got run over by a monster truck.”
Needless to say, Hunter was in pain. He looked at me with a sad, pleading face while his rear leg lay hugely swollen and dangling at an unnatural angle.
So here is a dog in what we can only imagine being immense pain. Yet when I leaned down to pet Hunter’s face, he somehow managed a weak tail wag and looked at me with just a tiny bit of joy from the attention. I can only imagine how I would have entered the ER: sweating, screaming, crying, and hysterical, probably.
Don’t worry, folks, we got Hunter loaded up with pain meds and eventually all patched up again. A dislocated hip, comminuted femoral fracture, and lots of lacerations and bruises, but he got through surgery just fine and, incredibly, avoided more serious harm.
How do our dogs and cats feel and express pain?
Let’s start with an honest observation, which is that you would assume that dogs and cats just don’t feel pain like we do. I see dogs and cats in both acute and chronic pain every day and here are some common examples:
Problem: Dog has its flank ripped open by a bear. Response: Seems completely oblivious to the 12” laceration on its side.
Problem: Cat has a mouth full of broken and rotting teeth. Response: Cat acts completely normal at home, interacting with family members, rubbing against owners.
Problem: Dog gets run over by a monster truck. Response: Dog is very quiet, but still wags tail if looked at and still eats treats.
Problem: Dog has a large, broken tooth in its mouth that you can wiggle with your finger. Response: Dog eats its dry food enthusiastically every day.
You’ll have to take my word for it that I’m not exaggerating.These are very common, if not daily presentations. I see animals that must be in significant pain, yet are not displaying anything to tell their owners such. And most of the time I’m dealing with very in-tune owners and very spoiled animals.
So, do animals feel pain like we do? Or are they just tougher than we are?
My short answer is that yes, of course they feel pain just like we do, and yes, they are indeed programmed to be tough.
To address the question of how animals feel pain, we need to look at our own bodies. Dogs and cats are mammals just as we are and, really, our bodies are incredibly more similar than they are different. In particular, the set-up of the nervous system is very much the same. Dogs have all the same nerves and skin response as we do, and their central nervous system processes the signal of pain in the very same way as we do. Remember that pain is a very important survival tool, teaching us about our surroundings. Feeling pain is very important! So yes, the anatomy and physiology is the same, and this has all been very well validated with research. Your dog’s tooth root infection hurts just as bad as your tooth root infection.
The real difference is in the programmed response. Let’s take each species (dogs, cats, and humans) and look at why they respond to pain as they do.
All of our domestic dogs originated from wolves. If you’ve read my columns over the years you know I love looking at wolf behavior to give us insight into how our spoiled dogs behave.
In every wolf pack, there is a strict hierarchy. From the alphas to the omegas, every wolf is subject to the pecking order. When you examine which are the alphas, they are not necessarily the largest and strongest in the pack, nor are the omegas the smallest and weakest. There is simply the natural stacking of personality traits along with physical traits and interactions between the wolves that leads to the resulting pecking order. This hierarchy gives the pack order and discipline and functions to keep the pack working together as a strong unit. However, there is always tension within the ranks. Those who seem weaker, more sullen, less energetic, etc.will likely be demoted in the pack’s ranks. Thus, wolves have likely evolved to hide pain because it is definitely not in their best personal interest to look weak. Getting beat up and having more limited access to food and mates is the result.
Cats are interesting in that they are an incredible predator, highly effective at hunting small rodents, lizards, and birds, but are also a prey species, at risk of being killed or hunted by larger carnivores or even hawks and owls. This is likely why cats have such a strong scare response and tend to be much more cautious in nature than our domestic dogs. Knowing that they have to watch out for these larger species, they likely have evolved to avoid looking like easy prey. All good predator species are skilled at picking out the weak and sick in a herd. One can only assume that for cats there is a natural tendency not to show signs of sickness or illness because of this point.
The early pioneers would likely look at us today and say that we humans have gotten a bit “wimpy.” Admittedly, we all live pretty soft lives and if I’ve injured my knee, you’re probably gonna hear about it at work, on Facebook, etc. Actually, humans are also designed to be pretty tough about pain, but most of us don’t have nearly the amount of regular physical suffering in our lives as our forefathers did. We humans are cerebral creatures, able to communicate our feelings and thoughts with so much expression, making it quite difficult to know if my son truly does feel like he is going to die from the paper cut on his finger or not. A lot of people do live with intense pain, and I predict they, too, are able to keep it under wraps most of the time and, much like Hunter, even wag their tails occasionally.
So, when you see your dog or cat has an issue that seems like it would be painful to you, it likely is.