11 alternative modalities for pain management in pets

11 alternative modalities for pain management in pets

If your dog or cat experiences pain or discomfort, consider trying one of these alternative modalities before reaching for the pain meds!

Did you know that animals experience pain just as humans do? Because dogs and cats are so stoic, most pet parents don’t realize when they’re in pain. In nature, an animal that shows signs of pain or weakness is considered a target for prey, and usually, they are excluded from their habitat to protect the rest of the colony they belong too. Therefore, animals have adapted to hide their pain to survive.

Recognizing discomfort in your companion animal

In our companion animals, pain presents as a change in behavior or a change in mobility (see sidebar). For instance, a dog experiencing pain from arthritis may not want to perform daily activities such as going for long walks, or he may have a hard time getting in and out of the car. Cats that are in pain may hesitate or avoid jumping onto higher surfaces, hide more often, or experience a decreased appetite.

Pain management – some alternative solutions

Fortunately, there are many ways you and your pet’s healthcare team can help manage pain and extend quality of life.

1. Physical rehabilitation

Physical therapy is a service often used in human medicine to help patients recover from surgery or restore tissue function after an injury. Likewise, there are many modalities used in animal physical rehabilitation that help reduce pain and inflammation to improve a pet’s comfort.

2. Laser therapy

Laser therapy, also referred to as low-level light therapy or photobiomodulation, uses light to stimulate specific cells to reduce inflammation and pain associated with inflammation. The laser can also help to regenerate damaged tissue by restoring function. Laser is often used on pets experiencing arthritis or soft tissue injuries, or recovering from surgical procedures. Pets with neurologic diseases like Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD) or degenerative myelopathy benefit from laser to help regenerate nerve function.

3. Thermal therapy

Thermal therapies such as heat and cryotherapy are often used to improve circulation or decrease inflammation and swelling. Ice is added after surgical procedures to help reduce pain and swelling, whereas heat can be added to sore muscles or stiff joints to provide circulation to the tissues and joints.

4. Therapeutic ultrasound 

Therapeutic ultrasound is a device that uses low energy sound waves to warm up the tissue for improving flexibility and promoting healing while decreasing pain and inflammation. It’s often used for pets with soft tissue trauma such as muscle and tendon strains or sprains.

5. Extracorporeal shockwave therapy

This device uses high energy sound waves to stimulate the tissue, which causes a physiologic response. This response leads to endorphin release for pain management and promotes tissue healing. Pets that benefit from shockwave therapy are those suffering from arthritis, muscle and tendon injuries, or bone fractures that are not healing as expected. There are many different types of shockwave therapies, some which may require light sedation due to the loud sound and intensity of the shocks.

6. Electrotherapy

Electrotherapy, also known as E-Stim or TENS (Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation), uses an electrical current that is applied to a painful area to inhibit the sensory response to pain. Electrical stimulation can help in cases involving arthritis, post-surgical recovery, or soft tissue injuries or trauma.

7. Pulsed Electromagnetic Field Therapy

Pulsed Electromagnetic Field Therapy uses low-frequency electromagnetic fields to reduce inflammation and decrease pain in the body. There are FDA approved devices that can be prescribed for use at home. Pets that benefit from this treatment are those with arthritis, wounds, soft tissue trauma, neurologic conditions, and post-surgical management.

8. Acupuncture

Acupuncture is a technique that uses small needles inserted into specific points on the body, which cause a physiologic response. Acupuncture releases the body’s natural endorphins that help to control pain. Acupuncture also stimulates nerves, which is beneficial for pets experiencing neurologic dysfunction like IVDD or Degenerative Myelopathy. Other pets that benefit from acupuncture are those with arthritis or soft tissue injuries.

9. Therapeutic exercise

Therapeutic exercise is used in animal rehabilitation to help strengthen weakened muscles that may be associated with an injury or post-operative recovery. Arthritis causes pain in the joints leading to weakness in the muscles. Therapeutic exercises help improve strength and mobility in arthritic pets, and pets recovering from surgery or injury.

10. Hydrotherapy

Hydrotherapy, such as swimming in warm circulating water or walking on an underwater treadmill, provides buoyancy while reducing pain on injured joints. The warm water causes vasodilation and increases blood flow to the tissue, helping to decrease pain in the muscles and joints. The hydrostatic pressure of the water provides body awareness that is beneficial in older dogs, or dogs suffering from neurologic disease. The resistance of the water also improves strength as the pet swims or walks against the water.

11. Massage

Last but not least, massage and manual therapies are used to alleviate taut muscles and increase circulation to the tissues. Massage brings blood flow to the tissue, providing oxygen and nutrients to the area. It can reduce pain by decreasing muscle spasms and improving the flexibility of joints. Massage can also decrease stress and anxiety that can exaggerate pain. Most pets – and their humans – would benefit from a massage!

Ask your veterinarian if they offer any of these pain-relieving modalities, or seek out a veterinary rehabilitation center in your area. It is essential to understand that although most of these modalities have therapeutic effects in managing pain and discomfort, medical interventions such as the addition of pharmaceuticals may be added to your pet’s regimen to provide the best pain relief and improve overall comfort. It is also important to understand that not all pets are candidates for every modality and that a consultation with a trained veterinary professional would be beneficial to discuss the best options for your companion.

Remember that animals experience pain too. It is our duty as their caretakers to keep them pain-free and look for alternatives that can extend their quality of life.

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