Some dogs and cats seem to be wusses when it comes to pain. Is there a genetic reason behind it?
By Kim Campbell Thornton
Andrews McMeel Syndication
Does your dog or cat act as if you’re killing him when you trim his nails, even if you’ve never “quicked” him? Scream bloody murder when all the vet tech has done is wipe her skin with alcohol? Some breeds have a reputation for being crybabies because they have what seem to be excessive physical or vocal reactions to even minor procedures. Are they wimps, or could there be a genetic reason for their behavior?
Some breeds do seem to feel pain more acutely than others, according to Michael C. Petty, DVM, who presented a lecture on managing pain in surgical patients at the 2018 VMX conference in Orlando, Florida, in February. He specifically calls out beagles, Shetland sheepdogs, and Northern breeds such as Siberian huskies — known for their excessive vocalizations. Other veterinarians agree.
“I think Arctic breeds probably do have a heightened pain response,” says Tamara Grubb, DVM, assistant clinical professor of anesthesia and analgesia at Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. Right now, she’s speaking simply from experience, but she believes that one day researchers will find that certain breeds have a genetic predisposition for a heightened pain response.
We know from studies in humans that complex environmental and genetic factors result in a high degree of individual responses to pain. Subtle changes in DNA may at least partially explain the different ways people perceive and express pain. There appear to be a number of genes in humans and animals that influence sensitivity to pain.
The genes that dictate coat color may also affect behavior or pain sensitivity in some way. It’s been found, for instance, that people with red hair are more sensitive to certain types of pain because they have specific gene variants. In his lecture, Dr. Petty says, “These people have a lower thermal threshold, need higher levels of anesthetics and don’t always respond to the effects of lidocaine like other people do. I suspect that some animals have the same issue.”
A study at the University of California, Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital found that cats with calico and tortoiseshell coats are more likely to hiss, chase, bite, swat or scratch when being handled by humans. Maybe their coat color genetics are linked to greater sensitivity to pain, although one of the authors, Melissa J. Bain, DVM, said they didn’t look at reaction to pain in their study.
It could also be that there’s no real link between coat color and certain behaviors. It may simply be what’s known in evolutionary biology as a spandrel: a byproduct of the evolution of some other characteristic — in this case, pain sensitivity — but with no direct relationship.
Some animals who more readily express pain also react differently to certain drugs. Veterinary anesthesiologist Jordyn Boesch, DVM, says breeds such as Siberian huskies and Alaskan malamutes become restless, anxious or depressed under the influence of certain doses of opioids used during procedures requiring anesthesia. That doesn’t mean that opioids shouldn’t be used with them, but that they should receive the lowest effective dose, she says.
Can you teach your pet to exhibit less drama when you trim nails or visit the vet? Dr. Petty noted that dogs and cats may benefit from Fear Free techniques or the feline-friendly handling guidelines developed by the American Association of Feline Practitioners. Techniques for at home and in the veterinary clinic include providing emotional and physical support, including offering a favorite treat or toy during the procedure; reducing the risk of nausea and vomiting by providing medication before car rides to the vet and prior to surgery; and environmental management of light, noise, odors, slick floors and other factors that can affect a pet’s comfort level.