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Contemplating Pain Relief

The Caninologist

Pain relief for a dog is a topic we’ve been forced to research lately, as Trixie approaches her 17thbirthday. To paraphrase the late Leonard Cohen: Her friends are gone, her hair is gray, she aches in the places where she used to play.

The vet recommended 50 milligrams of Tramadol, one or two little white pills per eight hours as needed for pain. Trixie usually tries to spit it out, but we’ve managed to get it down her gullet most of the times we’ve tried.

It’s in the same general class of opioid narcotics as heroin and morphine, but unlike those drugs, Tramadol is a synthesized version. It’s something like codeine only made in a lab. There are versions designed for slow release, to work better for chronic pain. It works for humans and canines. Dogs have many of the same opioid receptors in their brains as we do. Chances are, Tramadol works on a dog much the same as it does in people. Probably less risk of addiction, properly defined, but there are similar side effects: constipation, sedation, dizziness. 

The vet said it’s more potent than the other canine pain med, Rovera, we have kept around for the past few years. The dog hasn’t seemed herself after a little dustup with an unleashed pit bull that ran out one day up the street, followed by a slip from a ledge at Heron’s Head Park.

Some of Trixie’s hangdog look seems psychiatric, if you can say such a thing about a dog. She seems convinced now that an unleashed pit bull waits around every corner. She refuses to take a walk beyond the neighbor’s tree. She sleeps even more than usual. When awake, I see her lying still for hour on her side, eyes open but cloudy. 

I wondered how pain can be diagnosed in a dog. It’s hard enough to do in humans, but a dog can’t rate pain sensations on that familiar scale of 1 to 10. Trixie yelped when she fell off the ledge. That must have hurt. It was a snarlfest during the aggressive-dog encounter, followed by much limping. But what does the dog really feel?

Some animals seem to take the lizardly approach when injured. You hide it, as well as possible, so the hawks and coyotes won’t notice what an easy mark you are. Can you tell if a dog is being stoical but is really in some agony?

We decided against blood work, which I suppose could reveal some stress hormones. The vet examined Trixie carefully: lots of muscle wasting, worsening arthritis, nearly blind in one eye and can’t see well out of the other. But for a real assessment of the pain the dog may be feeling, the vet seemed to rely mainly on us. We just don’t want the dog to be suffering.

So the vet only prescribed about a week’s worth of pills. Trixie will go back soon, maybe for more pills, maybe not. I wondered if the pills we were giving the dog really were for treating us more than her.

Carl T. Hall is a longtime union organizer in San Francisco who is now a co-owner of Word. A Café, a dog friendly coffee shop now open for business in the Bayview Neighborhood. Readers can pick up copies of Bay Woof there, too.

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