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If you are searching for something that you can give your cat for pain, don’t look to your medicine cabinet or your dog’s medications for answers—what you find there can be toxic to cats.

Many common pain relievers have seriously harmful effects for cats. This is especially true of pain medications like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) and Tylenol (acetaminophen).

Here’s why over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications for people can be dangerous for cats and which medications should be used instead.

NSAID Use in Cats

Cats are extremely sensitive to the side effects of NSAIDs. Veterinarians will occasionally prescribe the forms of NSAIDs that are formulated for people, such as aspirin and ibuprofen, for specific conditions, but you should never give them to your cat for pain relief without veterinary guidance.

There are also NSAIDs made specifically for cats, but even these products needs to be used with extreme caution (if at all) and always under the close supervision of a veterinarian. 

Why Are NSAIDs Dangerous for Cats?

Cats are roughly two to five times more sensitive to NSAIDs than are dogs.

They are also not able to eliminate NSAIDs from their system as efficiently as dogs and humans. Research has suggested that this is because cats lack certain enzymes that help metabolize and eliminate certain drugs.

Cats are therefore at increased risk for adverse drug reactions, such as:

  • Gastrointestinal damage (ulcers, for example)

  • Problems with hemostasis (blood clotting)

  • Nephrotoxicity (kidney damage)

What About Tylenol for Cats?

Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is even more dangerous to cats than NSAIDs and should NEVER be given to a cat under any circumstance. As little as one tablet of Regular Strength Tylenol contains enough acetaminophen to kill some cats.

The drug’s metabolites (breakdown products) destroy liver cells, damage the kidneys and convert hemoglobin—the oxygen-carrying molecule in blood—to methemoglobin, which results in poor oxygen delivery throughout the body and tissue damage.

What Can You Give a Cat for Pain?

Pain medications for cats should only be given to cats under close veterinary supervision.

Acute (short-term) pain is often treated with a prescription opioid pain reliever called buprenorphine, but this medication can be costly over the long run.

Chronic pain associated with inflammation, like that caused by degenerative joint disease (also called osteoarthritis or simply arthritis), tends to respond best to multimodal therapy (taking several approaches at once), which often may not include traditional pain medications.

What About NSAIDs That Are Made for Cats?

Currently, there is only one oral NSAID that is FDA-approved for use in felines, called Onsior (robenacoxib). But it is only prescribed for short-term use (three days at a maximum) and can only be given once a day.

There has been increased research into NSAIDs and their potential use for long-term use in cats, specifically for the treatment of chronic pain (degenerative joint disease, idiopathic cystitis and cancer, for example).

The American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP), in conjunction with the International Society of Feline Medicine (ISFM), released consensus guidelines on the long-term use of NSAIDs in cats in 2010. The report explains, “It is only recently that NSAIDs have become licensed for long-term use in cats in some countries.”

These guidelines explain that NSAIDs are an important class of medication in feline medicine, and that it’s worth looking into whether they can be used safely in cats in long-term treatment protocols.

The guidelines also say that any cat being prescribed NSAIDs should be given the “lowest effective dose” and that all cats should undergo pre-treatment screening prior to starting an NSAID regiment and be closely monitored while on NSAIDs.

Your veterinarian will determine whether NSAIDs can be safely used for your cat.

What Are the Alternatives to Pain Medicine for Cats?

An appropriate diet can go a long way in relieving chronic inflammation and pain in cats.

For example, many overweight cats suffer from arthritis. Giving them food that has a reduced caloric density with normal amounts of protein will help them lose weight while still allowing them to retain muscle mass and strength.

Excess body weight not only puts undue stress on arthritic joints, but it also promotes the inflammation that is at the heart of the disease. Foods or supplements that contain high levels of omega-3 fatty acids like docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) can also reduce joint inflammation and the pain associated with it.

Pain meds are not the only, or sometimes even the best, way to provide a cat with pain relief. Talk to your veterinarian to determine what combination of diet and other forms of therapy might be right in your cat’s case.

By Jennifer Coates, DVM

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