As a small animal veterinarian, one of my jobs is to perform yearly physical exams on dogs. Some of my favorite client-patient combinations are older dogs and their owners. Often these human-dog pair have been together since the dog was a puppy, and there is a deep sense of love and belonging between the two.
These owners typically notice everything about their pets. They help me during the exam by pointing out suspicious skin bumps, telling me about appetite or drinking differences they’ve noticed, or changes in the energy level of their beloved aging friend.
One of the most common observations I see pet owners make is when I ask them how their dog is getting around, they say, “Oh fine. I mean – she is slowing down, but she is old.”
The sticky part of this conversation usually occurs when I have to tell pet owners that ‘slowing down’ isn’t typically a function of age, but an indicator that something’s wrong with their pet. And, whatever the condition is usually results in chronic discomfort that masquerades as ‘slowing down’.
Let’s just say it – Slowing down isn’t normal.
I wish I could get this message out. In fact, if I could rent an advertising slot in the Super Bowl, it would be to deliver a public service announcement to all dog owners: ‘slowing down’ in older pets isn’t normal – it’s a clue that your pet needs help.
Think about it in terms of human health.
Arthritis is common in older people. According to the CDC, an estimated 62% of adults with arthritis are younger than 65. Among adults with doctor-diagnosed arthritis, many report significant functional limitations such as only being able to walk 1/4 mile and difficulty climbing stairs. Additionally, arthritis is strongly associated with major depression, probably through its role in creating these functional limitations (source: Dunlop et al. 2004).
People with arthritis are ‘slowing down’ because they’re in chronic pain from arthritis. We now know that dogs with arthritis suffer from the same functional limitations and chronic pain as humans, and it looks like they’re just ‘slowing down’.
How do we know dogs are suffering from chronic pain?
In the past decade, a lot of research has gone into evaluating the efficacy of pain management in dogs with osteoarthritis. Researchers have studied everything from force plate gait analysis (how much weight does a dog bear each leg) to scientifically-designed owner questionnaires to evaluate how arthritic dogs respond to different types of pain management (medication, acupuncture, surgery, etc.).
What the research uncovered is that dogs suffer in silence.
These new quality of life assessment tools raise awareness of chronic pain in companion animals and help veterinarians help pets.
For example, the Canine Brief Pain Inventory (Canine BPI) designed by orthopedic researchers at the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School helps owners rate the severity of their dog’s pain and the degree to which the pain interferes with their daily functioning. While the Canine BPI was initially developed by Dr. Dorothy Brown to assess pain related to osteoarthritis, it’s been useful in raising owner awareness of their dog’s pain levels. And, it can even be used to evaluate whether pain management strategies are actually helping dogs.
How the Canine Brief Pain Inventory Works
The Canine BPI is a questionnaire that evaluates behaviors that aren’t normally noticed by owners, such as the number of times a dog gets up to look out the window, their ability to rise to standing from lying down and their ability to run and climb stairs.
The inventory uses quantitative statistical results based on the owner’s perception of their dog’s behavior at home, before and after the pain management or placebo is instituted. It’s been useful for evaluating traditional pain medications (Brown et al 2013) as well as several new pain management treatments that will soon be available to veterinarians.
Dr. Brown also encourages owners to think about other behaviors that can all be hidden indicators of chronic pain:
- How many times is the dog getting up to look out a window?
- Is the dog sleeping more?
- How well is the dog doing on walks? Are they lagging behind or sitting down?
- Has there been a change in temperament? Are they more grumpy?
In my experience, most pet owners are dismayed to find out that their beloved furry family member has been suffering in silence, or that they have missed or misinterpreted the signs.
Don’t feel bad!
It is your veterinarian’s responsibility to help you see these signs. It’s not easy because dogs typically do not express chronic pain in a way that is recognizable to humans. Dogs are very good at communicating acute pain to us – pain from lacerations, bee stings, or a toothache can cause your dog to acutely cry out in pain, whimper, or stop eating. But, unless you know what to look for, the signs of chronic discomfort from arthritis or other conditions is much more subtle.
Is your senior dog slowing down?
If your senior dog is ‘slowing down’, then it’s time to talk to your veterinarian. Your veterinarian will assess your pet for any sources of chronic pain, including arthritis, and advise you best on how to proceed. One easy way for owners to better understand their pet’s discomfort is to do a trial with pain medication. I send them home with a sample of pain medication and ask them to evaluate their dog’s behavior over the next week. Often a pet that was ‘slowing down’ is now pulling at the leash, enjoying activities more, and has a spring in his or her step!
Arthritis pain isn’t the only reason a pet may be slowing down. Heart disease, breathing disorders, and certain hormonal conditions can all masquerade as ‘slowing down’, and oftentimes, these conditions are treatable or preventable.
If your older pet is ‘slowing down’, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian.
- Dunlop DD, Lyons JS, Manheim LM, Chang RW. Arthritis and heart disease as risk factors for major depression: the role of functional limitation. Med Care. 2004;42(6):502–511. PubMed PMID: 1516731
- Brown DC, Bell M, Rhodes L. Power of treatment success definitions when the Canine Brief Pain Inventory is used to evaluate carprofen treatment for the control of pain and inflammation in dogs with osteoarthritis. Am J Vet Res. 2013 Dec;74(12):1467-73. doi: 10.2460/ajvr.74.12.1467.
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