Thoughts on pain and suffering and what makes life worth living

Rudy on my shoulderWhen pet owners look for guidance on assessing their pet’s quality of life, they are usually clear on wanting to avoid pain. They are often less clear on what early signs of pain might look like. They may be able to recognize a change that indicates sudden or acute pain, but are less confidant in recognizing chronic pain. Indeed, signs of chronic pain can be subtle at first, and pet owners rightly fear missing the early signs and then witnessing their pet suffer as pain escalates.

One of the problems when trying to identify chronic pain is that our pets don’t initially cry out to let us know. They often try to “get on with getting on” the best way they know how. Vocalizing or crying out is rare with chronic pain until the pain becomes unbearable. Even low-grade moaning is a sign that things are already very bad indeed. However your pet’s behaviour is your window into your pet’s experience of their body and knowing if your pet is suffering with pain.

Are you missing the subtle signs that your pet is in pain?

Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

Is your pet letting go of behaviours they used to perform because it hurts or because it is no longer worth the effort?

  • Reluctance to move can be a sign of pain. Have they stopped coming to greet you? Attempting to use the stairs? Jumping up on furniture? Soliciting attention? Wanting to go outside? Seeking food and water? Using their usual elimination spots?
  • They may have trouble changing position, getting up or lying down, or taking a posture to eliminate. They may have trouble getting into or finding a comfortable position for resting.
  • Do they appear stiff when walking, have a limp, an arched back or hold their neck differently?
  • They may have lost muscle mass and thus their strength, stamina and balance are also affected.
  • They may be hesitant to let you touch, pet, or groom them.
  • Perhaps they are showing you other signs like unexplained panting, trembling, restlessness, a loss of appetite, abnormal body positions or behaviours, protecting a body part, or a worried facial expression. Any of these signs could be due to pain.
  • It is reasonable to assume that any condition that would cause a person pain is painful for animals as well.

All too often people equate the signs they see of pain with signs of old age, so many older pets live with significant pain and suffer in silence. If these are merely signs of old age there is not much we can do about that, right?  But what if these are signs of pain and you can help your pet live well and engage in their life longer? This is information worth knowing. There are excellent resources available online which can help you recognize pain in your pet. This site from provides multiple resources for assessing pain in your own pet. Their online library is free to all.

It is equally important to recognize that the presence of suffering doesn’t solely depend on the presence of pain. Your pet could have low-grade pain and not actually be suffering, or they could suffer greatly due to other conditions. Protracted nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea can all cause suffering. Respiratory distress and air hunger can cause suffering. Fear and anxiety (including that due to dementia) can cause suffering. Repeated or protracted seizures can cause suffering. Loneliness and social isolation can cause suffering…

There are many ways to suffer. If these conditions cannot be fixed, or managed through palliative care, they significantly impact a pet’s quality of life. They, too, can make life not worth living. It is our responsibility to recognize all sources of suffering and to reach for the power we have to mitigate that suffering. If we can apply a cure that makes sense within the greater context of this pet and this family then that is plan A. If we can apply care for a time successfully and sufficiently then that is plan B. If plan A and plan B are no longer possible, then we are left with plan C – we are left with making the most compassionate choice we still have the power to make.