Seeing your dog is pain is awful. Whether it’s a slight limp or they’re recovering from surgery, their sad eyes, halted movements, and overall sadness is heart wrenching. Regardless of what’s causing your dog’s pain, it’s critical to be extremely cautious with any medication you give your dog. Just because it’s safe for you or your children does not mean it’s safe for your dog, and giving them the wrong medication creates some devastating and life-altering mistakes.
Giving Dogs Over the Counter Pain Medications
Despite what the internet suggests, there isn’t any over the counter medication that is safe for your dog. Tylenol might be incredibly effective at easing your throbbing headache, but it won’t have the same effect on your canine friend. Remember that pain medications don’t eliminate the pain from your body; they don’t take the area of the body that hurts and heal it. They simply work on the part of your brain that prevents your nerves from feeling pain. When those inhibitors are blocked, you don’t feel the pain anymore. This is partly why experts tell you not to load up on NSAIDs before a run because it blocks pain that could be telling you to stop moving.
It’s quite inconvenient for your dog to get hurt in the middle of the night or on the weekend when your trusted vet is no longer in the office. This seems to be Murphy’s Law when you own a pet, but it doesn’t mean you can go to the drugstore and pick up a human NSAID to give your dog. There are specific medications approved for use in dogs, and you can’t buy them at a store. Some pet stores sell buffered aspirin, and while aspirin has a low margin of safety for canines, it doesn’t mean it’s appropriate to give without the direct approval of a veterinarian.
Pain medications have the same effect on animals, but different inhibitors are targeted. Human drugs target different inhibitors, so giving your dog a Tylenol or Advil won’t even ease their pain. Not only are you assuming their pain is gone, you’re also giving them a medication that is going to wreck havoc on their body. So, why are human pain medications so bad for dogs? We’ve established they don’t have any effect on their pain which is a pretty big thing to consider. Secondly, human-specific NSAIDs are terrible for your dog’s liver and kidneys, the two organs responsible for metabolizing medications.
Acetaminophen, for example, directly affects the body in two ways. First, the liver is primarily responsible for breaking down the drug. This disperses it throughout the body while eliminating any of the medication that isn’t used. Dogs don’t have the proteins necessary to safely and effectively metabolize acetaminophen. This lack of proteins creates substances that bind to the liver cells and irreparably damages them. Secondly, another substance is created that connects to red blood cells. Once the substance attaches to hemoglobin, the hemoglobin is altered and becomes unable to carry oxygen throughout the body. Organs are deprived of oxygen and once enough red blood cells are damaged, the dog becomes anemic and needs blood transfusions to survive this acetaminophen toxicity.
Ibuprofen is another common household NSAID. It’s also toxic to dogs but targets the kidneys and gastrointestinal tract instead of the liver and blood. The substances created during the breakdown of ibuprofen reduce blood flow to the kidneys, as well as decreasing its ability to filter out other toxins. The substances disrupt the production of compounds that create the mucosal lining of the stomach and small intestine. When the production of the mucosa is interrupted, stomach irritation and ulcers begin to develop. A dog can survive with no kidney damage but develop painful and dangerous ulcers down the road. Untreated ulcers bleed heavily and eat a hole through the stomach or intestines, spilling millions of bacteria into the abdominal cavity and causing a severe and potentially deadly infection.
How do these types of over-dosages occur? It varies. Most happen because well-meaning owners give their dogs Tylenol or Advil over the course of a few days, assuming they’re helping their dog. By the time their dog presents with bloody diarrhea, jaundice, or a sharp spike in their thirst, it’s often too late and organ damage has occurred. Other dogs overdose because they get into their owner’s purse or cabinet and help themselves to the pill bottle. Many pain pills are coated with a sweet coating that tastes really good to dogs, so always keep your medications where your dog can’t get them.
Dog-Safe Pain Medications
Since human NSAIDs are unsafe for your dog, you’re wondering what dogs can have to manage pain. Luckily, there is a wide range of prescription pain medications for dogs to alleviate pain from injuries, surgery, and chronic conditions like arthritis. Depending on the pain being treated, there are a few different options. NSAIDs are the most commonly prescribed group of analgesics, and canine-specific NSAIDs have the same anti-inflammatory and pain relieving effects of human ones.
Like any medication, NSAIDs can have some negative side effects if they’re misused or prescribed to dogs with certain health conditions. The most common side effects are stomach upset, diarrhea, and loss of appetite. Sometimes it can be mitigated by giving your dog a meal when you administer the medication, or your dog may need a new prescription. Stomach ulcers are also a risk, so it’s important not to ignore any digestive symptoms. If your dog is vomiting blood or has bloody diarrhea, stop giving the medication and talk to your vet immediately. Signs of a bleeding ulcer include pale gums, extreme lethargy, a painful abdomen, and vomit that looks like coffee grounds.
Before beginning a long-term NSAID program, your vet will run bloodwork on your dog to ensure the liver and kidneys are functioning properly. A dog with liver or kidney damage/failure should only take NSAIDs with great caution. The liver and kidneys are responsible for filtering and metabolizing medications, so if the organs are already compromised, the stress of daily pain medication is enough to further damage them.
Carprofen (Rimadyl) is the most common canine NSAID because of its large margin of safety. It comes in tablet, capsule, and injectable form, but the injectable form is only used by veterinarians for in-clinic use. Carprofen is unique from other NSAIDs because the entire dose given in the morning is just as effective as breaking it up throughout the day. Compared to previous FDA-approved canine NSAIDs, carprofen has a low incidence of side effects. It’s not recommended for dogs with liver or kidney issues, but it’s still safe in older dogs with no health problems. The biggest risk is the risk of overdose. Rimadyl makes a beef-flavored chewable tablet that is notorious for causing accidental overdose because it tastes like a treat.
Meloxicam (Metacam) is typically prescribed to dogs suffering from osteoarthritis because it’s effective at reducing inflammation. It’s manufactured in both tablet and liquid form, so it’s also given to smaller dogs after routine surgeries like spaying and neutering. Make sure you tell your veterinarian if your dog has a history of liver or kidney problems, blood disorders, or heart disease.
Deracoxib (Deramaxx) hasn’t been around as long as Rimadyl has, but it’s being used more and more. Vets typically give it to dogs for post-operative pain management or to reduce inflammation from arthritis. Decreased appetite and diarrhea are the most common side effects. Concerning side effects are black or tarry stools, yellow gums or eyes, weight loss, and a change in drinking or urination patterns. It should never be used in conjunction with other NSAIDs or any corticosteroids.
As with any other drugs, pain medications should never be given without the direct supervision of your doctor. Even if it’s the middle of the night and your dog is in immediate need of pain relief, it’s never okay to give a medication intended for humans. Always take the time to get the right medication from your veterinarian to prevent causing irreversible damage to your dog’s system.