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Do You Know How Your Pet Really Feels?


If you are a pet owner, how good do you think you are at spotting distress in your dog or cat?  Do you think you are fairly good at it – and better than anyone else, because you are more familiar with your pet’s behavior than anyone?

A study recently published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior* examined the abilities of owners to detect distress in their dogs.  The researchers interviewed over 1,100 dog owners, and asked them what they thought stress was, what the behavioral signs of stress were and how stressed they thought their dogs were on average.

They found that most people could identify the most extreme signs of stress such as crying and trembling. But those are the only two out of 19 stress related behaviors that the majority of owners could consistently identify.  Said another way, fewer than half of the 1100 owners surveyed were aware of any but the most extreme signs of stress in their dogs.

An article in a recent issue of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association** described a study that showed the majority of cat and dog owners surveyed did not know that changes in elimination, exercise tolerance, or eating and drinking could be signs of disease.

As our pets age, they will show subtle changes in behavior that reflect their how well they are aging.  During a recent veterinary visit for our 9 year old Irish setter Coral, our veterinarian described how he always asks owners of older pets if they’ve noticed any signs of pain or discomfort.  Although many say “no”, he then asks questions such as does the dog or cat go up and down the stairs, does the pet have trouble getting up from a resting position, or is the animal still able to jump up on the bed or furniture.

Although the owners had previously said their pet isn’t painful, the client often then relays that the dog no longer goes up or down the stairs, does have trouble getting up, and can no longer jump on the furniture.  That’s his opening to discuss appropriate medication and other procedures to ease pain and inflammation and improve the pet’s quality of life as it grows older.

Suzanne recently gave a presentation on reading dog body language and communication signals for the annual meeting of the International Association for Animal Hospice and Palliative Care that was held in Denver.  Her message to that audience was that being astute observers of behavior – and being able to accurately interpret what we see - is one of the best ways to assess a pet’s quality of life during end of life care.

So what’s the take home message from all this information?  It’s a misconception that animals “instinctively” hide their pain.  We can usually tell when an animal is uncomfortable, in distress, or not feeling well, IF we know what to look for.  During your next veterinary visit for your pet, make it a point to ask your veterinarian what behavioral changes you should look for that could indicate your pet is becoming arthritic, showing some cognitive changes, or early signs of diseases common in older pets.  The sooner you can spot these indicators, the sooner your veterinarian can intervene and your pet can enjoy the best possible quality of life during its later years.

*Mariti, C., et al.,  2012. Perception of dogs’ stress by their owners. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 7: 213-219.

**Spofford, N., et al., 2013.  Should the veterinary profession invest in developing methods to assess quality of life in healthy dogs and cats?  J. of the American Veterinary Medical Association 243 (7): 952 – 956.

Dr. Suzanne Hetts and her husband Dr. Dan Estep are Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists. They provide professional behavior education services online, and resources to prevent and resolve pet behavior problems to both pet pros and pet owners. Coral, their diva-dog Irish setter provides daily inspiration.
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