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Pain In Small Animal Pets

How do small animal pets show pain or alert us that they are hurt?

Jerry Murray, DVM
Posted: September 27, 2013, 3:55 p.m. EDT

rabbit lying down
© Gina Cioli/I-5 Studio
Prey animals like rabbits may show pain differently than predators like ferrets.

Is my small mammal in pain? That is a good question, but it is also a difficult one to answer even for the veterinarians who work with exotic pets. Unfortunately animals cannot talk to us and let us know when they hurt. This makes it difficult to know when they are in pain.

We have to rely on subjective observations of changes in behavior and appetite to recognize pain in most small mammals. Behavioral changes vary a lot depending on the type of pet. Predators like ferrets and cats show different behaviors than prey animals like rabbits, rodents and sugar gliders. Thus we sometimes have to rely on the old question, would this condition be painful in a person? If it would be painful in a person, then we have to assume it would be painful in small mammals too.

Signs Of Pain In Rabbits
Rabbits can show a wide variety of signs when they are in pain. They can vocalize with a very high-pitched squeal, which sounds similar to a baby screaming, when they are initially hurt. They will sometimes emit this squeal when a painful area is touched. Pain can also cause rabbits to be inactive or completely immobile and hide in their cage.

Rabbits usually stop grooming and may develop a matted coat quickly when suffering from pain. Abdominal pain can cause a tense abdomen, grinding of the teeth and a reduced appetite. The reduced appetite can lead to weight loss. It can also cause a serious problem with the gastrointestinal (GI) tract called gastrointestinal stasis syndrome. Without proper treatment, GI stasis syndrome can become a fatal condition.

Signs of Pain In Ferrets
Ferrets  can vocalize with a high-pitched scream when in pain. Other signs of pain in a ferret can include reduced activity, a change in posture (no longer having an arched back or curling up when sleeping), lameness if a leg or arm is hurt, biting when handled, a lack of grooming, a reduced appetite, squinting of the eyes and bristling of the tail. Abdominal pain often leads to grinding of the teeth, pawing at the mouth and anorexia.

Signs of Pain In Rodents
Rats, mice, hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigschinchillas and other pet rodents often show similar signs of pain. Most have a change in appearance from a lack of grooming and a hunched posture. Sometimes their hair will stand up.

Rodents in pain often have a decrease in normal activity (walking, sniffing and standing up). Occasionally rodents (and sugar gliders) excessively groom, lick, bite, scratch and self-mutilate the painful area. Most rodents eat less food, drink less water and lose weight when in pain.

Rats sometimes have "red tears.” The red substance is not actually tears but porphyrin, which stains the fur around the eyes and nose.

Mice will sometimes have changes in their face, such as nose bulges and cheek bulges. Rats and mice may become aggressive when handled, and they may also vocalize when the painful area is touched.

Little information is available about pain responses in hamsters and gerbils. It is generally thought that they react to pain just like rats and mice do.

Guinea pigs in pain frequently stop running in circles (stampeding) and usually become less vocal than normal. Similar to rabbits, guinea pigs and chinchillas are prone to severe GI problems if they become anorexic from pain.

Pain Management
If a small mammal is in pain, then the next step is to treat the pain. Treatment can be rather complicated, because doses of pain medications vary and safety of the medications differ among the species.

In general pain can be controlled with local nerve blocks, opioids and/or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Sometimes even short-term steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can be used. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil) can be fatal in some species, so always check with your veterinarian before treating any small mammal with any over-the-counter, human pain medication.

Like this article? Check out:
Questions and answers about small animal health, click here>>
Help! My Pet Has Been Poisoned By My Medicine, click here>> 
See Dr. Murray's author bio, click here>>

Posted: September 27, 2013, 3:55 p.m. EDT


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