Sunday, December 19, 2010

Learning how to tell if a dog is in pain

I completed my second spay lab, in which third year veterinary students spay a dog from a shelter or low income family. Unlike my first spay lab dog, this dog had a uterus! (In fact, she was in heat, so I was pretty confident ahead of time that she would. My boyfriend: “How can you tell she’s in heat?” Me: “She has a vulva the size of Texas.”)

Linnea was an extremely nice dog who was extremely unhappy about being in the spay clinic for two days. She pawed at the cage door so much the first night that we gave her a sedative to take the edge off. Her spay went well, but when it is only your second spay, you still don’t trust that you haven’t done something stupid and that the dog isn’t in real trouble. (One of my classmates reports that she actually went to visit her spay patient at the shelter several days later, to make sure she was okay. My classmate pretended to be interested in adopting the dog in order to get time alone with her, so she could look at her spay scar.) So when Linnea started making a lot of noise the evening after her surgery, I was very anxious.

First I asked the anesthesia technician if he thought she needed more pain medication. He pointed out that she had been a very vocal dog before the surgery, and was almost certainly just stressed now, especially due to the after- effects of all the other medications we had given her making her feel less than mentally competent. My spay partner Lily and I looked at Linnea anxiously after letting her out to pee. Lily said: “Well, she seems to be standing sort of hunched over.” I said: “Yes, I really would like to give her more meds!”

The veterinary intern came by around that time, for evening rounds, and I explained how Linnea looked painful to us. (It is veterinary jargon to say an animal is “painful” rather than “in pain,” and I have seen this usage really annoy non-veterinarians. I am not sure why we say it that way, but that is how it is.) Now, Lily and I had recently completed our anesthesia course, which had several lectures about how to tell if dogs are painful, but of course in the heat of the moment we had completely blanked on this. The veterinary intern simply put her hand gently but firmly on Linnea’s spay incision. Linnea didn’t even blink; she didn’t turn her head or growl or flinch. The intern said confidently, “She doesn’t appear to be painful,” and this time, I believed it.

Dogs do sometimes vocalize when they are in pain, but it is not the best way to tell. Many dogs in pain do not vocalize, and there are tricks of body language that you can use to tell what is going on in their heads. We had some fascinating lectures on that, unfortunately far too image-filled for me to reproduce here.

I learned from this experience. When you’re not sure how to proceed, take a deep breath and think back to what you were taught in class. We actually have received a very good foundation for clinical work, but it can be really hard in the moment to pull the appropriate fact out of the mass of information packed into our brains after three years of veterinary school!

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