5 steps to prep for painful discussions

Pet owners don't want their animals to hurt. But when you tell veterinary clients their pets are suffering, your words might also cause pain. Here's how to lessen the hurt and help pets and clients feel better.
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Sep 01, 2012

"Your pet's in pain." It's a difficult message, and one that may prompt feelings of guilt, fear, or even shame for pet owners. They'll have questions, too. "How long has she been hurting?" or "What can I do to make it go away?"

You can help by offering a mix of compassion and facts, says Firstline Editorial Advisory Board member Sharon DeNayer, practice manager for Windsor Veterinary Clinic and the Downing Center for Animal Pain Management in Windsor, Colo. Consider this advice to help take some of the sting out of this uncomfortable conversation:

1. Offer reassurance. "We remind clients that dogs and cats are by nature predators," DeNayer says. "And when predators are weak, they become someone else's prey. So it's in the nature of animals to hide or mask their pain. They're really good at it, and some are much better than others. So it's not unusual for people to fail to recognize that their animals are in pain."

Often, she says, clients will say things like, "I just thought they were slowing down." They may complain that Fido isn't running around as much and he doesn't want to chase the ball or go up and down the stairs. Remind pet owners that a lot of the signs of pain are very subtle. And when they're living with an animal every day, they may not notice those changes.

2. Conduct a pain assessment on every pet at each visit. "In veterinary medicine, if you're only seeing an animal once or twice a year, there can be a lot of changes that happen within that period of time," DeNayer says. "We see animals each day that are in pain and their owners don't realize it. That's why we do a pain assessment on each animal."


Sidebar 1: Stay positive
3. Deal with denial. It's not uncommon, DeNayer says, for pet owners to be reluctant to acknowledge their pets' pain. During a pain palpation, veterinarians at Windsor Veterinary Clinic firmly touch specific areas of the pet's body to identify pain. Sometimes painful pets cry out. That's when the doctor will say, "I'm doing a pain assessment now, and what I am doing is applying firm pressure. Not painful pressure but firm pressure. And the reaction the pet just gave me was one of pain."

"In fact, we show the pressure we use by demonstrating on the person's forearm so the owner can realize that shouldn't hurt," DeNayer says. "When an animal that's normally very docile turns around and would like to take a bite out of you, that may signal pain."

The stakes are high. If pet owners don't think the animal is painful, they aren't going to treat the pain. "So it's really important to get them on board," she says. "It's very common for owners to fail to recognize pain."

So your first responsibility is to help pet owners recognize their pets' pain. There are usually plenty of visual clues during the pain exam, such as the pet slinking down and looking for a place to hide. At this point, DeNayer says, most every client can see the pet's pain and any lingering denial fades.