What Can I Give My Dog for Pain? Dog-Safe Pain Relievers · The Wildest

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What Can I Give My Dog for Pain?

You hate to see them like this. Here’s how to (safely) help.

by Melanie Glass
April 12, 2024
A shot of a young woman hugging lovely her little dog while lying down on the sofa in her living room.
ArtistGNDphotography / iStock

Concern that our dogs are experiencing pain is undeniably distressing for pet parents. While human pain relievers like Tylenol (acetaminophen), Aspirin (ibuprofen) can be toxic for dogs, vets may recommend a similar class of dog-safe, prescription non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for dogs needing pain relief. More severe pain often requires multimodal prescription medications to ensure a good quality of life by managing discomfort.

Pain and illness in pets can be difficult to identify, even for a veterinarian. Giving over-the-counter medications without veterinary consultation has the potential to make a condition worse and cause life threatening complications. To avoid hazardous complications — ranging from dangerous ulceration and bleeding in the intestines, kidney damage, or even inability to deliver oxygen properly to tissues — it’s safest to consult your vet if you are concerned your pet is in pain or unwell.

Human medications to avoid

Generally speaking, over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications for humans are not safe and less effective pain control for our pet dogs. Pet parents are understandably eager to give something quickly and easily accessible if they are worried their pooch is experiencing discomfort. But giving your pup an OTC medication like Tylenol (acetaminophen) or an NSAID like ibuprofen, aspirin, or naproxen, could cause potentially life-threatening side effects and drug interactions, even at a low dose. 

Tylenol has a high risk potential for life threatening side effects without effective treatment of pain in dogs (and is fatal in cats!). Do not give it to your pets!

Aspirin can be found in pet stores and online products marketed for dogs, making what to do at home confusing. These products are not FDA-approved; there are no OTC NSAID products approved for dogs and cats. Although occasionally aspirin has been used by veterinarians for specific cases, it is a bad idea to give one of these unapproved products without involving your veterinarian due to high risk of dangerous side effects, like intestinal bleeding.

Veterinarian-approved medications

Luckily, there are a variety of veterinarian-approved medications that, when given as directed, are safe and effective for pain in our dogs. One of the most effective medications for immediate pain relief are veterinary-specific NSAIDs, or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. They work by disrupting the inflammation pathway in the body, which varies somewhat by species and individual, hence the variety of medications used.

This is the same class of drug as many OTC medications humans take, like ibuprofen, naproxen, or aspirin. However, the veterinary-approved types are much better tolerated by our canine patients, more effective, and have a lower risk of side effects. Common canine NSAIDs include carprofen, meloxicam, deracoxib, and robenacoxib. Which drug a veterinarian chooses to prescribe depends on the individual needs of your pet and will be determined during consultation.

There are a host of other options veterinarians have in their arsenal for pain control. Combining medications usually creates better pain relief than each medication would do on its own. This is called “multimodal” pain control and is a common approach for both chronic and acute pain (such as from trauma or surgery).

Chronic pain management

The ability of even diligent pet parents to detect pain in dogs can be elusive, especially with chronic pain sources, like joint or dental disease. Pets are notoriously stoic and less likely to show pain in ways we expect. Signs of pain are often so subtle and can be understandably misinterpreted or missed entirely. Most veterinarians recommend pet parents remain hypervigilant of potential signs of pain. They also strongly encourage people to consult their vet sooner rather than later if they are concerned their pet is in pain or unwell. Differentiating the two can be a challenge altogether.

Vets can employ the multi-drug, or multimodal pain approach, to try to maximize relief because pain is a complex process in the body with many pathways, sometimes necessitating using a variety of drugs. Just as each pet is unique, their source and experience of chronic pain also requires an individual approach. Many factors should be taken into account to ensure our pets are living healthy, happy lives.

A custom plan should be holistic, taking into account what environmental factors could be contributing (like too many stairs in the home or overfeeding and weight gain). The plan should also consider what coexisting medical conditions could be contributing to discomfort and what combination of oral and/or injectable drugs make the most sense for a particular dog. Fortunately, there are now more options in veterinary medicine to provide a layered, effective approach to ensure our pets are comfortable.

Arthritis and joint support

As pets age, one of the greatest interrupters of quality of life and the bond we share with our pups is arthritis. Osteoarthritis is the progressive loss of the protective covering on the ends of the bones (cartilage) that make up joints, which creates a source of pain and inflammation that can become chronic. Obesity and orthopedic conditions can exacerbate the arthritis process. Signs at home, such as limping, can be obvious, but can have a more insidious onset with only mild changes in behavior.

There are many options to treat joint pain in our pups. NSAIDs can be mainstay therapy for arthritis but can have unpleasant side effects, like vomiting, diarrhea, and appetite change, especially with chronic use. These drugs are usually used as a short course intermittently when pets seem particularly painful. A newer drug called Galliprant (grapiprant) is an NSAID that is labeled specifically for use in arthritis, appearing to be highly effective to reduce pain and inflammation while being safe to give long-term.

Adjunct NSAID therapies in chronic pain like arthritis often include drugs such as gabapentin and amantadine. They are of older classes of human pain drugs that are gaining popularity in veterinary medicine as a component of a multimodal pain plan but currently lack data specifically supporting efficacy.

Joint supplements are a debatable part of joint care in veterinary medicine, given their limited regulation and scant studies demonstrating efficacy. Omega-3 fatty acids , the active components of fish oil show the most promise of promoting cartilage heath and improving mobility. Glucosamine and chondroitin have not definitively demonstrated efficacy for arthritis pain and inflammation but are often recommended because they have few side effects. These products are used not as sole agents but may be a part of a balanced multi-modal approach to pain.

Part of arthritis care can now include biological medications. Librela (bedinvetmab injection) is newly available as the first monoclonal antibody therapy for dogs that has shown to be effective for the long-term treatment of osteoarthritis pain with improved mobility and quality of life.

Acute injury or post-surgery care

Just as with chronic pain, a multimodal approach is often more effective when our pets experience trauma or have surgical pain. Prior to surgery, prevention of pain starts before a procedure with a balanced multimodal anesthetic plan that uses drugs with different pain-relieving pathways, as well as use of local anesthetics. These plans make for better recoveries and more comfortable postoperative periods.

Other than surgeries, such as routine spay/neuter, dentals, and mass removals, a common source of acute pain is limping from a muscle sprain or strain. As with chronic pain, the mainstay for comfort in the aforementioned scenarios is NSAIDs. Often, these are combined with opioids, which are best used in an acute, short-term setting, given they have side effects, such as constipation, urinary retention, and dysphoria (confusion and unusual behaviors).

Opioids are federally controlled substances with risk for abuse by people, necessitating a limited course in our companion pets. At home, opioids that may be prescribed for dogs are codeine, buprenorphine, fentanyl patches, and less commonly tramadol. Historically, tramadol was widely prescribed to control pain in dogs, but recent studies now indicate tramadol is an ineffective veterinary pain medication and should not be relied on to provide relief to our pets.

Other than oral medications, your veterinarian may prescribe medications to act as light sedatives (such as gabapentin or trazodone) to keep your pet calm during recovery, which can prevent excessive movement and licking of their incisions. These medications are used in the acute setting for their sedative properties and are ineffective strictly for pain control in the short term. Setting the environment of your pet up for success by providing a crate to limit mobility during the recovery period, ensuring they do not have to climb stairs or walk far to food, water, and bathroom resources, and providing a modified diet in the case of dentals can all be a part of a post surgical plan to reduce pain.

What home remedies exist for pain management in dogs?

Pet parents very naturally seek something they can do easily at home for their pups’ pain, given the expense and inconvenience of going to the vet. There is also a palpable shift in owners wanting a more natural approach to their dogs' health. One of the most beneficial ways to reduce discomfort and improve quality of life in our dogs is to strive for a healthy weight.

Maintaining an ideal body condition has shown to greatly reduce the reliance on NSAID medication for comfort and increase overall health and quality of life. Ensuring the home environment is mobility friendly with ramps, easy access to resources, and even orthopedic bedding can have a great impact on your pet’s daily comfort.

Alternative therapies, like acupuncture, show promise for pain control when used in combination with proven effective modalities like NSAIDs and may be a useful addition to a multimodal pain plan.

The internet is a treasure trove of questionable homeopathic pain management strategies. At best, many are ineffective and at worst could be harmful. Given the risk of toxicity or drug interactions, using unrecognized therapies — such as essential oils — are not recommended. If you are interested in an alternative therapy, the best thing to do is consult your veterinarian to find out if it should be included as a part of a well-balanced, evidence-based plan.

FAQs (People also ask):

What vitamins can I give my dog for joint pain?

If on a commercial, nutritionally balanced dog food, your dog should not need any additional vitamins. There are no specific vitamins recommended for joint pain in dogs. Although vitamin E appears promising in humans to reduce inflammation associated with arthritis, this has not been demonstrated in dogs.

What human medicine can I give my dog for pain?

Without veterinary guidance, none. There are no human OTC pain medications approved by the FDA and any prescription drug such as gabapentin or opioids require veterinary direction.

Can dogs have Ibuprofen or Tylenol?

No! These drugs are not safe for dogs and carry a risk of life threatening side effects. (Do not give them to your cats, either!)

How can I comfort my dog in pain?

If you suspect your pet is in pain, the best thing to do is consult your veterinarian right away so they can best figure out the source of symptoms and provide the most effective relief.

Melanie Glass holds a cat.

Melanie Glass

Melanie Glass is a veterinarian practicing in New York City, currently working in shelters and private practice. She is particularly passionate about feline medicine, dentistry, surgery, and animal welfare. When not working, she balances training for road races in Central Park, exploring with city with friends, and quality time reading at home with her cats, Christina Crawford, Rosalind Franklin, and Starfish.

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