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Pain Relief for Dogs with Chronic Conditions

So what are the best ways to manage a dog’s pain?

by Claudia Kawczynska
January 1, 2020
Close-up of a Merle coated Greyhound dog laying in the lap of their pet parent on the bed
Trinette Reed / Stocksy

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Dogs communicate with you all the time, but when it comes to their pain, you have to figure it out on your own. Pain, especially chronic pain, is a regrettable and frustrating problem for many dogs. While surgical solutions might be an option, that’s not always the case. So what are the best natural ways to manage a dog’s pain? Is it possible to affordably provide a better quality of life? Here to help with that daunting task is Michael Petty, DVM, author of Dr. Petty’s Pain Relief for Dogs.

Natural Pain Relief For Dogs

Healthy Weight

Overweight dogs have shorter lives than dogs who maintain a normal weight. Dogs that are extremely overweight or obese may have orthopedic problems, diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, and joint problems. Studies have shown that even a small reduction in body weight significantly decreases lameness and pain.

Supplements

When recommending supplements, Dr. Petty stresses the importance of omega-3 fatty acids as part of a dog’s diet. Omega-3s work to help decrease the production of pain-causing prostaglandins. Dr. Petty adds, “Fish-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids are best because of bioavailability. Sources like flaxseed are okay for people but useless for dogs, as they cannot convert flax to omega-3s. If you are feeding a food that has salmon or sardines as an ingredient, then you don’t have to worry about the amount, as it takes very little of these foods to provide enough omega-3s.”

Dr. Petty also recommends a few botanicals, like ashwagandha and boswellia serrata, for their benefits in pain relief and/or reducing inflammation in dogs. Another strong anti-inflammatory for dogs is turmeric which can help reduce pain and reduce damage to joints. Dr. Petty notes, “The problem is finding a reliable source of herbs, as they are not monitored by the FDA like pharmaceuticals are. One good option is a product called Dasuquin Advanced, from Nutramax; it has many important pain-modifying ingredients, including several herbs.”

CBD treatment

New studies are coming out that demonstrate the positive effects of both pain and inflammation. In a 2018 study done by Cornell University, researchers administered a full-spectrum CBD oil to dogs. Results showed that CBD oil effectively reduced a dog’s visible signs of pain and improved mobility.

Acupuncture

The veterinary attitude toward acupuncture seems to have changed a lot. Dr. Petty talks heavily about his enthusiasm for acupuncture, saying, “Talking about acupuncture is one of my favorite things to do. I cannot imagine practicing without it, especially in my geriatric population, which is more sensitive to the effects of many drugs. I think attitudes have improved — in both veterinarians and dog owners — as more and more research is being published on the benefits of acupuncture. In addition, it has the support of the National Institute of Health for the treatment of pain.”

He continues, “For many dogs, the proof of being a good candidate is obvious in their response to treatment. Within one to three treatments, we can usually see an improvement in pain scores and observations. If we don’t, then sometimes the decision is made to stop treatment. I have had a few clients return and say they didn’t realize how much it was helping until it was stopped.”

Dogs have been known to shake out the needles. “Some dogs are needle-phobic and resent even one needle going in. Some dogs are just afraid of being at the veterinary clinic and won’t sit still. I sometimes give these patients a mild sedative to get over this hump. A reduction in anxiety for several treatments often means they eventually accept acupuncture without continued use of the sedative.”

What about OTC medication?

People often wonder if there are any over-the-counter medications that can be given to an injured dog to ease pain and inflammation before taking the dog to a vet. The answer is no. And ibuprofen and aspirin are both dangerous for dogs. “No. No OTC medications are licensed for use in dogs. Ice and stabilizing injured limbs are about the best you can do,” Dr. Petty confirms.

Dr. Petty answers a few follow-up questions:

How do you determine the best treatment?

A pain exam can take many forms. My approach depends in part on the history given to me by the dog’s caregiver, the breed, prior medical conditions and watching the dog walk into the exam room, just to name a few.

Every pain exam should consist of a complete physical exam; an observation of the dog’s gait when possible; a basic neurological exam (many neurological issues can mimic pain); and a hands-on palpation of the dog’s joints, muscles, and bones. Based on the findings, X-rays are often indicated, as well as blood work and urinalysis, in anticipation of possible pharmaceutical interventions and procedures requiring sedation or anesthesia.

Is pain best handled by a specialist?

No one specialty “owns” pain. Anesthesiologists are well trained to handle acute pain, but not chronic. Neurologists are trained in matters like intervertebral disc disease but not osteoarthritis. The list goes on. My first choice would be to seek out someone with a pain certification — a Certified Veterinary Pain Practitioner — from the International Veterinary Academy of Pain Management. This certification takes several years to earn, and program graduates are experts in the field of pain management.

What are the signs of pain in dogs?

The answer to this is complicated. However, if people start to see their dog as lazy, not socially interacting, reluctant to do the things they liked in the past — really, any behavioral change — then pain should be on the list of possible problems. Dogs rarely quit doing the things they like to do because they’re old; they quit doing them because there’s something wrong. And that usually means disease, commonly something painful like degenerative joint disease.

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Claudia Kawczynska

Claudia Kawczynska was co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Bark for 20 years. She also edited the best-selling anthology Dog Is My Co-Pilot.