Pain is one of the major things we look for in our patients and is recognized as a sensory or emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage. When assessing a patient, one challenging aspect we always have to take into consideration is their ability to hide their pain.
All animals have a genetic reflex developed by their ancestors to mask themselves from appearing vulnerable and weak to a predator. This illusion of health appears differently depending on the species and whether they are considered to be a predator or a prey animal; for example, a dog may fight, but a rabbit will freeze. This shows why any changes in our pets are so important to recognise and act on, as it can represent something beyond what they are showing.
One way that animals can try to talk to us about how they are feeling is through their behaviour. Although every animal varies as an individual, if they are experiencing some sort of pain or are uncomfortable, they will try to tell us. These telltale signs can include aggression, vocalisation, inappetence, abnormal postures or movement, increased anxiety, urination or defecation changes, self-trauma and wound interference. Understanding their normal and abnormal behaviour helps us to understand what they are saying, and if you notice any of these signs you should take your pet to your local vet.
Physiological changes in the body are another major important piece to understanding what is happening with our patient. This is why an assessment includes checking their heart rate, respiratory rate and temperature. These changes are also especially important during an anaesthetic where an animal is not conscious. Any changes can indicate whether an animal is in pain or not and how we can make them more comfortable, for example, if they are too hot or cold.
Bit by bit the puzzle starts to come together as we try to figure out what our patient is trying to tell us. In the process of trying to crack the animal code, we also use a method known as anthropomorphism; the ability to apply human characteristics onto another object or animal. By using this method, we are able to put ourselves into our patient’s position and are able to try and understand how we might be feeling if we were them. This enables us to target their needs and wants in a way that we feel is necessary - such as husbandry, medication or even loving attention.
Although we may not have the ability to verbally communicate with our furry patients as Dr Dolittle can, it hasn’t stopped us from trying to understand and translate what they would be telling us if they could. It’s this ability to understand and care for our patients through a different kind of language, as if they could tell us what was wrong, and knowing they would be thanking us if they could.