What Can I Give My Dog for Pain Relief?

Amanda Simonson, DVM
Written by:
Published: July 19, 2022

As health care options for dogs continually improve, it means they are living longer lives. And with a longer life span comes more risk for pain and diseases that can cause pain.

Enough research has been done that we are now able to recognize the signs of dog pain earlier, and we have multiple options for helping a dog that’s in pain. 

Here’s some insight on signs your dog is in pain, as well as which pain meds are safe for dogs, the forms they come in, what type of pain they are used for, and whether they are prescription or over the counter.

Recognizing When Your Dog is in Pain

It is important to know the signs of pain in your dog so you can consult with your vet to help. It is also important to continue monitoring your pet’s progress and signs of pain once they start any medications. Pets deserve a good quality of life and should be able to enjoy the things that bring them pleasure.

There are several animal pain scales that allow you to rate your pet’s pain level, such as the canine acute pain scale created by Colorado State University veterinary school.

Here are some signs that your dog may be in pain:

  • Restless or distracted easily

  • Looking uncomfortable

  • Whimpering, crying, groaning, or howling

  • Licking, rubbing, biting, or chewing wound or surgery site

  • Droopy ears, looking worried (shifty eyes, arched eyebrows)

  • Not responding when called

  • Not moving all or part of their body

  • Not interacting with people

  • Shifting their weight or limping to protect certain areas

  • Growling, flinching, pulling away, crying, biting, or whimpering when touched

Are Human Pain Meds Safe for Dogs?

In general, there are some medications that both people and dogs can take, such as certain heart medications, thyroid medications, and antibiotics. However, even if it is safe for dogs to take a specific human medication, the dosing is usually different.

A human’s metabolism also has major differences compared with that of a dog. That means some medications that are safe for people can be toxic to dogs or can even kill them.

Never give your dog the most common over-the-counter human pain relievers:

These medications can cause stomach bleeding, kidney failure, and liver failure. Always ask your vet before giving your dog any human medication.

What Can You Give a Dog for Pain?

Your veterinarian will work with you to develop an individualized plan depending on the type of pain your dog is having. This may include:

  • Vet-prescribed nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which help relieve pain by decreasing inflammation. Note that even though ibuprofen and naproxen are also NSAIDs, they should never be given to your dog—always consult with your vet before giving your dog a new pain medication.

  • Opioids, which work in the brain to limit pain perception (these are typically reserved for more severe pain).

  • Other drugs can affect the nervous system at various levels that can limit pain signal perception.

  • Supplements are used in cases of mild to moderate pain, or with other medications to limit the amount of a drug your dog may need to take.

  • Combinations of physical therapy, acupuncture, chiropractic manipulation, and environmental modifications for pets that cannot tolerate medication well.

NSAIDS for Dogs

Certain nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) that can safely be used in dogs are approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to help control pain and inflammation in dogs with osteoarthritis. This group of drugs works at points along the inflammatory pathway to affect the body’s response to pain.

As a negative side effect, however, the medications can block essential body functions like protecting the lining of the stomach and intestines, maintaining blood flow to the kidneys, and supporting platelet function.

It is important to give your dog only NSAIDs that your vet has approved, and to work closely with your veterinarian while your dog is taking them. Some NSAIDs are available over the counter and others are by prescription. Some pets, such as dogs with pre-existing liver or kidney disease, may not be able to take this class of medication.

Your veterinarian may want to run some tests prior to starting these medications and/or once your dog is on the medication a certain amount of time. The tests can help show how your dog’s body and organs are functioning to safely use an NSAID.

NSAID drugs can be effective in controlling pain and inflammation and may be used in multiple ways:

  • Your veterinarian may prescribe them for a short time after performing surgery such as a spay, neuter, or dental procedure.

  • The vet may also prescribe them longer-term, for diseases such as hip dysplasia and osteoarthritis.

  • NSAIDs can also be used safely with some other medications including tramadol, gabapentin, or  joint supplements.

These are some NSAIDs that vets commonly use:

  • Carprofen (Novox or Rimadyl)

    • Prescription medication

    • Tablet, caplet, or chewable tablet

    • Prescribed once or twice daily

    • In use since the late 1990s

  • Deracoxib (Deramaxx)

    • Prescription medication

    • Chewable tablet

    • Prescribed once daily

    • In use since the early 2000s

  • Firocoxib (Previcox)

    • Prescription medication

    • Flavored chewable tablet

    • Prescribed once daily

    • In use since the early 2000s

  • Meloxicam (Metacam)

    • Prescription medication

    • Flavored tablet or liquid

    • Prescribed once daily

    • In use since the early 2000s

  • Grapipant (Galliprant)

    • Prescription medication

    • Tablet

    • Prescribed once daily

    • In use since 2016

    • This NSAID may have fewer side effects than some other NSAIDs. It works at a different point in the inflammatory pathway than most other NSAIDs.

  • Aspirin

    • Over-the-counter medication

    • Tablet

    • May need to be given multiple times daily, as directed on the label

    • Not FDA-approved for use in dogs

    • This medication may have more side effects and risk of toxicity than the prescription medications available.

Most of the time, NSAIDs are safe, effective medications to help dogs with pain when given as prescribed. It’s important to monitor your pet closely for side effects and signs of toxicity.

Veterinary intervention is needed in an overdose situation or if your pet is not tolerating the medication well.

Opioids for Dogs

Opioid drugs work at receptors in the brain to provide relief from moderate to severe pain. They can be prescribed after surgery or used as part of an anesthetic protocol.

Opioids have a high potential for abuse in humans and come with regulations, monitoring, and limitations. They must be prescribed by the vet, and because they are controlled drugs, your veterinarian must keep a dispensing log that can be audited by the DEA.

Opioids can have side effects in pets, including panting or slowed breathing, salivation, nausea, vomiting, vocalizing, sedation/lethargy, or hyperexcitability.   

  • Morphine

    • Liquid, extended-release tablet, or extended-release capsule

    • Used for surgical pain (such as orthopedic procedures) or severe trauma

    • Short-term use only

  • Buprenorphine

    • Liquid

    • Not meant to be swallowed; it’s squirted into the mouth for absorption by vessels under the tongue

    • Used for surgical pain, cancer pain, or trauma

    • Short-term use only

  • Codeine

    • Liquid or tablet

    • Used for severe arthritis pain, chronic collapsing trachea cough, or surgical pain

    • Short- to medium-term use

  • Butorphanol

    • Liquid or tablet

    • Used for surgical pain

    • Short-term use

  • Fentanyl

    • Liquid or transdermal patch

    • Used for surgical pain

    • Short-term use

    • Patch must be handled carefully so the opioid is not absorbed into your skin

Other Medications for Dogs in Pain

  • Gabapentin

    • Tablet

    • Used long-term to treat pain from osteoarthritis and other chronic diseases; used short-term for acute nerve pain

    • Prescription medication

    • Believed to affect parts of the nervous system to reduce a dog’s ability to perceive pain

  • Tramadol

    • Tablet

    • Used for chronic pain such as osteoarthritis. Recent studies question its effectiveness or ability to limit pain.

    • Prescription medication

    • Controlled drug

  • Amantadine

    • Tablet, capsule, or liquid

    • Pain control effects in brain and spinal cord

    • Prescription medication

Joint Supplements for Pain in Dogs

  • Glucosamine

    • A natural substance used to protect cartilage

    • Used for mild pain from hip dysplasia and spinal cord injuries

    • Many forms, including tablets, chews, and liquids

    • Available over the counter

  • Chondroitin

    • A natural substance used to protect cartilage

    • Used for mild pain from hip dysplasia and spinal cord injuries

    • Many forms, including tablets, chews, and liquids

    • Available over the counter

  • Adequan

    • Injectable product

    • Used for pain from osteoarthritis and also has anti-inflammatory benefits

    • Prescription medication

  • Fish oil

    • Natural substance

    • Used for pain from osteoarthritis, skin disease, kidney disease, heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes, epilepsy, and some types of cancer, and also has anti-inflammatory benefits

    • Available over the counter

How to Comfort a Dog in Pain

Work closely with your veterinarian to plan for your pet’s pain management needs. Here are some tips and things you can do to modify your home to help ease your dog’s pain. These are often used in conjunction with pain medications to help pets feel most comfortable.

  • Manage your pet’s weight.

    • Limit excessive strain on joints and risks for concurrent diseases such as diabetes mellitus or heart disease.

    • Work with your vet to modify your pet’s diet and develop light exercise routines that your pet can tolerate to slowly achieve goals over time.

  • Get your pet moving.

    • Daily walking, swim therapy, or other low-impact exercises keep muscles and joints moving and healthy, and these activities are also great for your dog’s mental stimulation. Many forms of exercise release natural endorphins and help control pain.

  • Make modifications to your home.

    • Help your dog maneuver around your home more easily with things like carpet runners, dog boots, or socks with grips.

    • Assess any dog doors, stairs, or areas that are difficult to get up, into, and out of for your dog. Sometimes ramps or limiting access to areas are required to keep your dog comfortable and safe.

    • Some pets can benefit from elevated food and water bowls if they have pain in the neck or joints when bending to eat and drink.

 Alternative Therapies

Pet parents can also ask their veterinarian about complementary therapies. These include:

These are natural ways to enhance pain control when a pet cannot tolerate medications or needs added benefits. Many of these therapies have terrific results and can be a rewarding way to help your pet.

References

US Food and Drug Administration. “Galliprant — A Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug (NSAID) for Dogs with Osteoarthritis.” September 2019.

Wunsch L, Schmidt B, Krugner-Higby L, Smith L. “A comparison of the effects of hydromorphone HCl and a novel extended-release hydromorphone on arterial blood gas values in conscious healthy dogs.Research in Veterinary Science. 2010;88(1): 154-158.

Featured Image: iStock.com/mumemories


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