Acute pain is a short, sharp burst of pain designed to protect animals, including humans, from further injury by telling us we are doing something we shouldn’t. Acute pain in dogs results in a yelp, whining, a sudden limp, or cowering and fearful eyes – which makes it easy to detect. Chronic pain is pain that continues for a long time, which slowly debilitates and harms. It seems to have no protective function.
Instead, chronic pain is a result of real changes within the nervous system that generate more pain than should actually be there. It is these changes that become the source of the pain, not just the initiating cause within the joint. (Many conditions can result in chronic pain, such as cancer, and dental disease, not just those associated with arthritis).
The continual presence of this kind of pain means there are no dramatic easy-to-see signs. Your dog will try to get on with life, but may change the way he walks, lays, or sits. He may be hesitant on stairs, slippery floors and uneven surfaces like the beach. He gets fearful of knocks and tumbles so will keep himself to himself, or become upset with other dogs and family members. He will attempt to do less as its too painful so will come across as more tired, lazy or lethargic. Normal activities will become too difficult so he will pause when trying to get in the car, or worse, misjudge it. And he is likely to get anxious due to the constant pain, and will always want to be with you.
Humans can express chronic pain verbally, but dogs express it with changes in their behaviour and capabilities. They cope as they do not know there is another option. They don’t know there are drugs and therapies. When they feel uncomfortable they have to adapt to minimise that discomfort.
Chronic pain is much harder to manage effectively than acute pain, so prevention is better than cure. Prevention is achieved by identifying your dog’s arthritis as early as possible.
Because we cannot reliably identify and quantify it our dog’s pain, vets use pain relief and monitor the resultant change.