Are Pain Meds for Dogs Safe?
By Jennifer Coates, DVM
Knowing that a dog is in pain is upsetting. So it's an understandable reaction to want to do something — anything — to provide the dog pain relief as soon as possible. However, as tempting as it may be to reach for an over-the-counter pain medications such as ibuprofen, aspirin, or acetaminophen and give it to the family dog, you must avoid them at all costs. Over-the-counter pain meds (OTC medications) and human medications can be very dangerous, even fatal, when used improperly in dogs.
Are NSAIDs Dangerous for Dogs?
Some of the most common over-the-counter pain relievers fall into the category of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs). Common examples include aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen. They all work by inhibiting an enzyme called cyclooxygenase that is responsible for the production of prostaglandins that promote inflammation, fever, and pain. But prostaglandins also play many other roles in the body, including maintaining adequate blood flow to the kidneys, the production of a layer of mucus that protects the inner lining of the gastrointestinal tract from stomach acid, and normal blood clotting. When these functions are reduced, dogs can develop vomiting and diarrhea (often bloody), intestinal problems, loss of appetite, bleeding disorders, kidney or liver dysfunction or failure. They may even die without appropriate treatment.
Problems can arise with NSAID use in dogs for several reasons:
- Sometimes an owner will give (or a dog will get into) an inappropriately high dose of one or more of these drugs.
- Certain dogs are especially sensitive to human NSAID brands and can develop dangerous side effects even when a correct dose is given.
- The concurrent use of other medications (e.g., corticosteroids) and/or the presence of certain health conditions (e.g., gastrointestinal, liver, or kidney disease) can make the use of NSAIDs for dogs more risky than normal. (NOTE: Cats are especially sensitive to the adverse effects of NSAIDs, but because more dogs are exposed to these medications, a greater number of NSAID toxicity cases are reported in dogs in comparison to cats.)
What About Tylenol for Dogs?
Acetaminophen (Tylenol) presents a slightly different story. Acetaminophen is not an NSAID. No one is exactly sure how it works to reduce pain and fever (it has no effect on inflammation), but when dogs ingest toxic amounts of acetaminophen, it destroys their liver cells, damages the kidneys, and converts hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying molecule in blood, to methemoglobin resulting poor oxygen delivery throughout the body and tissue damage. (NOTE: Cats are so sensitive to the adverse effects of acetaminophen that just one, regular strength tablet can result in death.)
Ask Your Vet About Pain Meds for Dogs and Other Pain Relief Measures
For all of these reasons, NSAIDS and other pain relievers should only be given to pets under the supervision of a veterinarian. Drug companies have designed specific canine pain medication that are safer and more effective than those that are designed for people. Examples of these modern pain killers include carprofen, deracoxib, etodolac, and meloxicam. With knowledge of the specifics of a dog’s health history, the doctor can make a proper diagnosis to determine which medication and dose is most appropriate and design a plan for monitoring that will make treatment as safe as possible.
Appropriate medicine is not the only way to provide dog pain relief, however. Chronic inflammatory conditions such as general arthritis often respond well to dietary modification. For example, foods that are supplemented with omega-3 fatty acids like eicosapentanoic acid (EPA) can reduce joint inflammation and the pain associated with it. Also, overweight dogs benefit greatly from a weight loss plan that includes both diet and exercise. Foods with a lower caloric density but normal amounts of protein can help dogs lose weight while maintaining muscle mass and strength. Reducing body fat and promoting lean body mass decreases stress on joints and inflammation throughout the body.
The combination of a good diet and weight loss will often lessen if not completely eliminate the need for pain meds for dogs suffering from chronic conditions like arthritis. More severe cases can also benefit from physical therapy, acupuncture, cold laser treatments, and other interventions. Talk to your veterinarian to determine what combination of diet, exercise, pain meds, and other treatments is right for your dog.
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