Pain, fear are four-letter words

April 11, 2018

My friends and I talk wistfully about how the world has changed since we were kids. We remember heading out in the mornings on bikes to explore, refueling with lunch and then pedaling out again. We played evening games of Hide and Seek or Capture the Flag for hours before going to bed.

Every kid in the neighborhood would charge out of their home at the tinkling song of the Good Humor truck. Ice cream – what a treat!

No computers. No video games. No cell phones and no social media. Wonderful memories!

Everything, absolutely everything, has changed in our world, not just how we raise our children. In veterinary medicine, two significant and fabulous changes are happening now relating to pain and fear in our patients. It’s a great time to be a veterinarian (but then it always is).

I remember years ago at a veterinary conference listening to a preeminent veterinary surgeon describe a new fracture repair procedure. I was shocked watching the videos of several dogs waking up post-operatively and recovering in their cages. They turned in circles over and over again, whining, before finally crumpling into an exhausted sleep. If dogs could cry, their faces would have been saturated with tears.

Back then, we believed that pain was protective. If they felt pain, they would stay quiet, rest and heal more quickly. How wrong we were. Our pets feel pain, but they compensate for it. Cats particularly disguise their pain.

Pain is debilitating. It roils in angry waves across the entire body to disturb rest, slow healing and destroy a good quality of life.

Please believe me when I tell you your old dog, as it struggles to get up and lay down, is painful. Your old cat doesn’t jump on the counter or use the litter box because of painful arthritis. Any surgery, even routine spays and surgeries, wreck havoc in the body. Say “yes” when we see pain in your pet and suggest medications, cold laser or physical therapy. Any of these can help your pet live a pain-free life. We want that for ourselves. Our pets deserve it also.

A veterinary clinic is a place of strange smells and loud noise. People rush around and pull hesitant dogs along on leashes. Cats, stuffed in a carrier then placed in a car, are overwhelmed. For some pets, visits are a mixture of growling, high anxiety, anal gland smell, pounding heart rates and sheer terror on both ends of the leash.

It doesn’t have to be. A fear-free hospital culture does things differently.

Take Skylar for example. She’s about 3 years old and was adopted by her humans a little over a year ago. Her creamy fluffy coat looks like it’s been tipped with gold by a paint brush. Dogs have the most amazing ability to forgive and forget, but I can’t imagine what happened in Skylar’s puppyhood. She trusts no one.

She slinks into the clinic licking her lips. Her tail is tucked and her ears are pinned backward. A rumbling growl begins immediately in the exam room, and she flinches when I approach. She will not look at me. There is no way to put my hands on her without being bitten, and as her fear builds, I think she would bite her human.

Thankfully, we recognize her fear as does her family. Her folks do not want to sacrifice her care by skipping out on regular veterinary visits because of stress. We’re now slowly, positively, trying to change her perception of us. That is why peanut butter is king for Skylar.

After four visits, I was finally able to finish her yearly care. It was a red letter day when she accepted peanut butter from my fingertips that visit. I sprayed pheromones on me and in the room. We sat and talked on the floor (rushing is not welcome in a fearful patient). Soft music played. She comes hungry, so we can bribe her with treats. We’re now encouraging her family to make “just because” visits where she will walk around, have treats and greet her “team.” We need to convince her that we are the good guys.

Low-stress handling is the game changer for Skylar. Sadly, not all of our patients are cute, cuddly and loving. We adapt to their personalities and learn how to cope with their challenges. It is the difference between providing mediocre and excellent medical care. Their emotional well-being is just as important as their physical well-being.

We veterinarians took an oath to prevent and relieve animal suffering. Erasing pain and fear is part of that promise.

Dr. Holly Woltz (Doc Holly), Chief of Staff at Veterinary Services, has practiced veterinary medicine for 30 years and specializes in senior care. A former teacher and writer, she enjoys talking and writing about the human-companion animal bond and its importance. Visit her at www.aikenpetvet.com.