Pain sensation in animals, pet insurance, and listeners’ questions: Pete the Vet on Newstalk’s Pat Kenny Show

Pain sensation​ in animals

There are two parts to the pain sensing systems in the body

  • Nociceptors which are the nerve endings that detect harmful stimuli, in the skin or on the outside of the body. These are pretty much universally found in all types of life: even amoeba move away from stimuli that have the potential to cause harm.
  • Consciousness of pain: this happens when the nociceptor system connects up with a brain-type structure. This is only found in “higher” types of animals, but it can be difficult to draw the line as to which species are included here. Certainly all mammals, birds, and others vertebrates including fish have central nervous systems (brains) that are activated when pain is felt. Some invertebrates (such as oysters) do not, while others (such as octopuses) do have brains. There are more subtle aspects of understanding whether or not all creatures are fully conscious of pain, including assessing the various connecting pathways between different sensory areas of the brain. Some argue that fish feel pain, while others disagree.

Given that pain is an unpleasant sensation, it makes sense to try to eliminate pain from the world as much as possible, whichever type of creature is feeling it. This is one of the main aims of good animal welfare and care for farm animals, including fear-free, pain-free slaughter at the end of their lives.

What about pain in pets?

When I qualified as a vet thirty years ago, pain relief was only given to animals in obvious severe pain (such as after major operations). Since then, far more effective, safe pain relief has been developed, and at the same time it’s been recognised that animals don’t necessarily vocalise if they are hurting: sometimes they just go quiet. And it’s been accepted that if a human would be in pain in a given situation, it’s almost certain that an animal would be in similar pain.
So vets now give far more pain relief than in the past, including:

  • After almost any operation, from simple spay/neuter, to stitch-ups, to tumour removals, to anything at all.​ Pet owners should make a point of asking their vet what sort of pain relief will be given.​
  • Many (most) older dogs and cats suffer quietly from pain due to arthritis, and a daily tablet or drops can be enough to remove this pain: the effect on the animal is to make them behave like a young animal again, demonstrating the debilitating effect of long term low grade pain.
  • Vets have also started to use multi-modal pain relief i.e. A combination of different types of pain relief given together e.g. Non-steroidal type drugs, morphine-type drugs, anti-anxiety type drugs, and even acupuncture, all given together.
  • If anyone is concerned that their pet might be in pain, they should talk to their local vet for a pain assessment. Vets do this by examining the animal, first watching their general behaviour (moving around, going up steps etc), then poking and prodding them, and bending and stretching their joints.

​Pet insurance

The principle of pet insurance is an excellent one: pay a low monthly amount regularly, and if your pet is unlucky enough to have a major, expensive illness or accident, the insurance company will cover the costs for you.
There are four or five pet insurers in this country and it always makes sense to shop around, as long as you do that intelligently (there are some corners that are not worth cutting)
Visit for a free downloadable guide to choosing a pet insurance policy
Pet insurance companies in Ireland include, An Post, Blue and others.

Examples of recent cases I have had to deal with include:

  1. A paralysed Terrier that needed major spinal surgery to remove a damaged disc: total cost over €6000
  2. A Westie with skin disease that needs continu​al medication to keep him stable: annual cost total around €1500 for the rest of his life
  3. A dog that fell off a cliff, suffering multiple broken bones and needing to stay in intensive care: total cost over €4000

Queries from Newstalk listeners

Listen to the podcast to find out the answers to the following questions about pets:

  • Now that my girlfriend has found a full time job we will have to leave our one year old Pomeranian on his own for eight hours, a couple of days a week.  Would getting a second dog to keep him company be the best option for his well-being? Any breed suggestions? Should we get another male or a female?  Nick
  • I have an older dog Toby (16-17yrs – Jack Russell cross).  My vet has advised me to keep him on a low protein diet as he is showing signs of advanced renal problems/failure.  I have been giving him a dry food mix for this but feel sorry for him having to eat the same thing.  Are there any foods you can advise me that I can give him just to have some variety for his diet? He is a much loved dog and we really want him to be comfortable in his old age! Molly
  • Can you give a Labrador dog Seven Seas tablets to prevent him from getting arthritis.
  • CALLER:   I have a puppy question. Just got a new puppy 4 days ago. 9 weeks old. Labradoodle. Has all vaccines, wormed, spot on etc. She has developed diarrhoea. Pure water! In process of changing food from mother and puppy food to hills. Should I persevere or change. She hates it. We have foxes in our garden. Have they caused the diarrhoea. Also she is not sleeping at night. Either are we! Howling all night. Appreciate any advice. Thanks. Margaret

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Please note that I am unable to answer veterinary questions in comments. If you have questions or concerns about your pet's health it is always better to contact your vet.

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