“Timber is in so much pain. I just hate that he is suffering. I just wish there was something I could do.” This is one of the most frequent comments I hear from pet owners. Before I was an animal communicator, I was a pet sitter and in that role; I was in the unique position of observing pain from a relatively detached perspective. What I mean by that is while I never want anyone to suffer, I wasn’t emotionally charged by a pet’s discomfort the way I likely would be if it were my own fur baby. That allowed me to observe a contrast between what the pet owner was sharing with me about their pet’s suffering and what I actually witnessed in the pet.
When I arrived at Timber’s house, his mom had printed out three pages of instructions for his care while she was gone. It detailed his routine, his food and treat preferences, his quirks, and an emergency protocol. He was a senior mid-size dog with arthritis and prone to eye and ear infections. Before his mom said her tearful goodbyes, she described with detail how much pain he was in and to carefully watch him as he went up and down the handful of deck stairs leading out to the backyard. She showed me the pain medications to give him with each meal even though she wondered if they really helped. She also showed me the supplements to give him that she heard helped with join pain and arthritis. I knew this much needed vacation was a long time coming because she was so worried about leaving him in case something happened while she was gone. I assured her I would take good care of him, take pictures every day and keep her updated as often as she needed.
He was one of the first special needs/aging pets I cared for. Nervously, I watched his every move. She told me he loved walks and was ok to go on a short one, but I was terrified. I figured I would probably keep him confined to the backyard when it was time for potty breaks. Each time I took him out back, I was like a gymnastics coach awkwardly spotting him down each step just in case he stumbled. After a few days I relaxed my stance a little bit because he seemed to navigate the stairs just fine and I began observing him closely. I started researching signs of pain in dogs. I watched for heavy panting, agitation, adjusting his body position while he was laying down, wincing, favoring the front legs over the back, tension in his body – especially his face/head, shaking, anything that let me know he was in pain. I saw nothing. I didn’t doubt that he was in pain, I just didn’t see any visible signs of it.
I got courageous enough to take him out for that short walk. He loved it. I had to restrain him from practically skipping out the door he was so excited to go. No sign of pain. When we had gone as far as his mom suggested, I turned to walk him back home to his dismay. He reluctantly turned with me continually turning his head back in the direction we had been walking letting me know he really just wanted to keep going. I patted his head and offered my apologies saying that his mom felt it was in his best interest to keep his walks to a minimum so he didn’t overdo it. This was the start of my journey into the question, “Are we really more qualified to know what is best for our pets than they are?”
Over the next 10 years I focused my pet sitting practice on special needs/aging pets. Within the structure of following a pet owner’s desires for their pet, I was in a great position to communicate and listen to the animals about what their experience was actually like. What I discovered was that the animals were almost always content within the structure that their parents provided for them. And, they wished their parents understood how much more they were capable of. They wished their parents knew that they didn’t experience pain the same way humans do. They didn’t have stories and expectations that it should be any different. Pain was simply an experience, nothing more, nothing less. They didn’t love it, but they didn’t wish it away. They innately knew to just keep moving and living the way they always had until they couldn’t. They didn’t understand the concept of ‘overdoing it’. If they had pain and played too hard despite it, they didn’t judge themselves (or their parents) for not stopping earlier. They simply felt contentment that they were able to play that hard that day and if they had the chance, they would do it again the following day. I learned so much from them during these times about embracing the moment, continuing to honor what my body needs and not let pain/illness be an excuse to think I should do less than I normally would. They taught me to try anyway. Maybe I can’t walk 5 miles, but I can try to walk 2. If I feel pain or get tired, I’ll simply turn around.
There were however moments for the pets when their pain was so great, they were not capable of play. There were moments when it was so bad, they got cranky, lashed out, even sometimes snapping at their loved ones. This was not in judgment. It was simply them expressing their needs. Once again, they were teaching me a valuable lesson in honoring my own needs. In the importance of being aware and embodied in the present moment. They were teaching me that hurt and suffering are two different experiences. Hurt and pain is rooted in the present. Suffering is rooted in the past and future, two places that they do not live. They are ok with their pain. They do not feel there is anything wrong with the fact that they are in pain. They do not need it to change. They like when it does, but it is not necessary for them to continue enjoying a full and joy-filled life.
Yes, it is important we help take care of our pet’s pain. Take them to the vet, give medicine if needed, offer supplements, purchase supportive items such as ramps, offer alternative therapies such as energy work, chiropractic care, or acupuncture. These are much appreciated by our babies (fur ones, winged ones, finned ones, cold-bloodeds, arachnids, and other two and four-leggeds). It is also important to objectively recognize what they are telling us when they are in pain. It is important to get curious if we are projecting our human stories on their pain. One easy way to recognize this is if we find ourselves concerned about their suffering.
Just as we only want to see our pets happy, they want the same for us. When we are worried about them, they recognize that and want to help us feel better. This can show up in so many different ways! They may try to hide their pain (which is a natural instinct anyway) so we aren’t as concerned. They may ‘play up’ their pain because of the extra attention it gets them. They may behave one way in front of one family member and another way in front of another.
Pain in animals is very real and affects them both physically and energetically (see this blog post about the energetics of pain). The most important thing our pets want us to know is that they do not experience suffering with pain the way we do. They want you to know you are not doing anything wrong and they see you doing everything in your power to help them. They want you to know they love you and want to see you happy. They also want you to know that while their pain is a part of their animal existence, it is also an element of how they are here to help you let go of your own suffering.