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Pain Meds For Dogs: The Complete Guide to Pain Relief for Dogs

Pain Meds For Dogs: The Complete Guide to Pain Relief for Dogs

Alpha Paw Sale

Jun 19, 2021

  • What pain meds can I give my dog? There are many options available for pain meds for dogs, but you should only give them if recommended by your veterinarian.
  • At home, you can help relieve your dog’s pain by heat or cold packs, massages, nutritional dog supplements, and weight management.
  • Alternative therapies such as acupuncture and hydrotherapy are available options for pain relief for dogs. Just ask your vet for a referral.
  • Don’t give your dog ibuprofen or any other over-the-counter medication. Ibuprofen for dogs is toxic, and so are many other human medications.

Pain Relief for Dogs

As a loving pet parent, seeing your dog in pain can be hard to handle. Since you want your dog to feel better as soon as possible, you’re probably wondering: what pain meds can I give my dog? But it’s not always as easy as popping a pill, like us humans do.

There are many excellent pain medications for dogs, but if your dog has an underlying illness or is taking other medications, giving them may be contraindicated. Luckily, there are several great options that provide pain relief for dogs and can be administered at home.

It’s important that if you think your dog is experiencing pain, you take him for a clinical examination at your local vet. It could be a serious condition, and without proper treatment, your dog’s pain might be prolonged.

How can I tell if my dog is in pain?

Dogs show pain and discomfort in a number of ways, some of which are very subtle and easy to miss. Since our dogs cannot tell us they’re in pain and they hide their pain very well, it’s important to be vigilant pet parents and pay attention to the signs and symptoms that your dog is in pain.

These are the most common signs that indicate pain in dogs:

  1. Limping
  2. Antisocial or aggressive behavior
  3.  Vocalizings, such as whining or yelping
  4.  Licking a focal area of the body, such as a joint
  5.  Excessive panting
  6.  Difficulty lying down and settling
  7.  Changes in eating, drinking, or sleeping habits
  8.  Excessive drooling
  9.  Lowered tail
  10.  Reluctance to jump, play or climb stairs

If your dog is experiencing any of these symptoms persistently, it’s time for a visit to the vet, and find out when and what pain meds to give your dog.

Common Pain Medications for Dogs

If your dog is experiencing pain, your vet is likely to prescribe oral pain medication for him. Some of these you can buy from a pharmacy, but it’s imperative that you do not give your dog any medication without discussing it first with your vet. Pain meds for dogs have to be administered very carefully. This is because giving the wrong dose, or giving a medication when your dog has an underlying condition, could be fatal to your dog.

So if you’ve been asking yourself ‘what can I give my dog for pain’, here are some common pain medications for dogs. 

NSAIDs: Anti Inflammatory for Dogs

NSAIDs stands for ‘non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs’. They are the most common first-line choice of pain relief and anti-inflammatory for dogs. The most common active ingredients include meloxicam, carprofen, firocoxib and deracoxib.

NSAIDs are common prescriptions for dogs with osteoarthritis, a condition where the cartilage gradually breaks down, causing the bone to rub against each other. The insistent rubbing can permanently damage the joint and cause pain, inflammation, and lameness. 

NSAIDs are the same class of drugs as ibuprofen and aspirin, however, ibuprofen is highly toxic to dogs and should never be given. Aspirin for dogs is rarely prescribed by vets, as there are much more effective NSAIDs that are not ‘off-label’ (in other words, licensed for use in animals). There are special NSAIDs specifically for dogs and they should be given under the supervision and advise of your vet.

NSAIDs should always be given with food, unless your vet advises otherwise, as they can cause dangerous gastrointestinal side effects, including vomiting, diarrhea, and gastric ulcers. Side effects of NSAIDs are mainly observed in the digestive tract, kidneys, and livers.

Can Pain Meds for Dogs Damage Their Digestive Tract? 

NSAIDs have both direct and indirect side effects on the digestive tract. The direct effects are due to the drug’s physical properties. Many NSAIDs become trapped in the stomach. They are slightly acidic as well so they can irritate the stomach lining. 

The indirect effects are because NSAIDs are either preventing the body from producing prostaglandins or blocking the protection these substances offer. Prostaglandins protect the stomach and the intestine’s lining. When fewer prostaglandins are made or if their activity is blocked, the entire digestive tract is exposed to damage and could result in ulcers or perforations (holes) in the stomachs and intestines. 

Take note to avoid giving your dog two NSAIDs at the same time or an NSAID paired with a steroid such as prednisone. This increases the risk of side effects in the digestive tract, contrary to providing pain relief for dogs. 

Nevertheless, despite the potential side effects, they are extremely effective at reducing pain, inflammation and temperatures, so they are usually what your vet will reach for to deal with your dog’s pain.

Can Pain Meds for Dogs Damage Their Kidneys? 

When there is a decrease in the blood flow to the kidneys, such as when your dog is dehydrated, under anesthesia, or has kidney disease, prostaglandins cause the arteries to the kidney to open. This keeps the blood flowing to these vital organs. 

Due to NSAIDs’ prevention of the production of prostaglandins or blocking some of its activities, these drugs might reduce blood flow to the kidneys. This can lead to kidney damage and sudden-onset kidney failure. 

NSAIDs should be used with caution in animals that have existing kidney disease or other medical conditions that cause reduced blood flow.

Pain meds for dogs: the complete guide to pain relief for dogs

Tylenol for Dogs (Acetaminophen)

Acetaminophen, or Tylenol, is a nonprescription and common over-the-counter medication that humans usually used to relieve pain and fever. But now, the question is can dogs take Tylenol? Is it a safe pain medication for dogs too? Does it actually provide pain relief for dogs under distress? It depends.

Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers can endanger your dog’s health and are not recommended pain meds for dogs. Unless under the direction or supervision of a veterinarian, dogs should not be given human medications like ibuprofen (Advil), acetaminophen (Tylenol), or aspirin. 

If your dog is in mild to moderate pain, your vet will most likely prescribe a different and safer drug than acetaminophen, such as a specific dose of baby aspirin. 

While it’s true that there might be cases where your veterinarian will prescribe acetaminophen to your dog, it’s important to follow their instructions and recommendations for dosage and administration. Other than that, never give ibuprofen (Advil) or naproxen (Aleve) to dogs. Always consult your vet first before giving your dog any medication. 

Even with your veterinarian’s green light on acetaminophen, dogs with prescribed safe doses might still experience some side effects, such as gastrointestinal upset, liver and/or kidney issues, and blood-related problems.

As a quick note, acetaminophen is also not safe for cats. 

Opioids

Opioids (such as morphine, codeine, fentanyl, buprenorphine, and hydromorphone ) are potent pain-relieving medications. Two opioids are approved for use in animals: butorphanol and buprenorphine.

They are used by licensed professionals mainly for their extreme effectiveness in providing pain relief for dogs, especially acute and surgical pain. It may also be used in certain cases of cancer and to control arthritis pain. 

Common side effects of opioids are sluggishness (sedation), change in mood, and excitement. Most of these are related to central nervous system processes. 

Take note that different animals have different responses to opioids so doses need adjustments. 

Several years ago, tramadol was a popular medication for when NSAIDs just weren’t good enough. However, more recent research has proven that tramadol is extremely variable and doesn’t work like an opioid as originally believed. Due to the common side effects of it, such as sedation, a change in mentality, and constipation, coupled with the uncertainty of it working, it has gone out of favor with most vets.

Gabapentin for Dogs

Gabapentin is an anticonvulsant and analgesic drug veterinarians prescribe to treat seizures, pain, and anxiety in dogs. It is a medication for humans and is used as “off-label,” in veterinary medicine. This means gabapentin is not FDA-approved for pets. However, at lower doses, it is also effective as pain relief. It works better if given in combination with another pain-relieving medication and is not particularly effective on its own. Nevertheless, it is usually the second-line medication of choice for most vets.

Gabapentin is particularly good for neurological pain in the brain or spinal cord, for example, if your dog has a slipped disc in the back. In addition, it is also used to prevent seizures due to its anticonvulsant properties that are beneficial for adjunctive therapy and as a pain-reliever for chronic and neuropathic pain. It immediately takes effect in 1 to 2 hours. 

Take note to not give the oral liquid form of gabapentin made for humans. It contains xylitol which is a substance toxic for dogs. 

Sedation is a common side effect of gabapentin and the level of sleepiness varies in each dog. Vets will prescribe a starting dose and depending on the dog’s response to it, the vet will lessen as needed. However, many dogs seem unaffected at the lower end of the dose range, which is what is used for pain relief.

Amantadine

Amantadine is an antiviral medication that complements NSAIDs well. It is a multipurpose drug and has a varied mechanism of action. Like a lot of other drugs, it is used as “off-label” in veterinary medicine. It is particularly good for giving pain relief for dogs with  ‘wind-up’ pain, when things that shouldn’t be painful become uncomfortable. For example, if your dog exhibits signs of pain from a light touch on an area, or you notice the area is swollen.

Many human pain relievers are generally not safe for dogs, especially over-the-counter NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen and aspirin. However, amantadine is considered one of the safe pain meds for dogs. 

If you’re wondering what you can give a dog for pain and swelling, this might be for you. It is a relatively safe medication, but it’s very expensive. Your veterinarian will determine the best dosage of amantadine depending on your dog’s condition. Usually, dogs can be given amantadine once or twice daily for chronic pain treatment. Talk to your veterinarian about it and see if Amantadine is right for your dog.

Natural Pain Relief for Dogs

There are several home remedies for pain that might help your dog, and many of them act as natural anti-inflammatories for dogs. If your vet approves, you can provide all of these home remedies for pain alongside any medication he wants you to give your dog:

Heat therapy (cold/heat packs)

Heat packs are great for muscle pain and joint stiffness, and ice packs are useful for reducing inflammation and pain associated with an acute injury. Remember to wrap the packs in a towel so that you don’t make your dog uncomfortable when applying them.

Massaging

Massaging gently helps to stimulate the blood flow to the affected area, which reduces inflammation and speeds up healing. You can use your hands in a stroking motion, or a rubber brush in gentle circular motions.

Joint Supplements for Dogs: 

If your dog is uncomfortable due to a joint injury or osteoarthritis, supplements containing omega oils, glucosamine and chondroitin have been scientifically proven to help reduce inflammation in the joints. Our Omega Chews are packed with Omega 3, 6 and 9 fatty acids and other essential nutritional supplements that help support your dog’s healthy hip and joint function, immune system, brain and cardiac health.

You should also consider buying vet-approved supplements made with the addition of Devil’s Claw and Turmeric to reduce inflammation, especially for joint pain. Our premium joint supplements for dogs contain the powerful natural anti-inflammatory ingredients turmeric, glucosamine hydrochloride, chondroitin and MSM to support mobility, reduce discomfort and relieve your pup’s pain.

Alpha Paw’s dog supplements are USA manufactured in a GMP (Good Manufacturing Practice) certified and FDA registered factory. Our chews are non-GMO and are free from corn, wheat and artificial preservatives.

Weight Management:

Ensuring your dog is lean is vital for reducing pain in the legs and back. The less gravitational force there is on the sore area, the less it will be aggravated.

Alternative Therapies for Pain

If you want to think about pain relief for your dog without using medications, there are also several other complementary therapy options which can help.

Veterinary acupuncture is becoming more recognized as a Western treatment. Acupuncture originated in China, but Western medical research has now discovered exactly how it works, leading to it becoming widely accepted by most vets. Acupuncture is a potent pain-relieving modality, as the insertion of needles triggers the nervous system to release endorphins, which are the body’s natural opioids. It also improves blood flow, leading to increased healing.

Veterinary acupuncture can legally only be performed by a vet with a proper veterinary medical diagnosis. This is vital because veterinary acupuncture can mask pain and other clinical symptoms of diseases. It is used for functional problems such as paralysis, noninfectious inflammation (such as allergies), and pain. For smaller animals, acupuncture can treat: 

  • Musculoskeletal problems, such as arthritis, 
  • Intervertebral disk disease, 
  • Traumatic nerve injury, 
  • Respiratory problems, 
  • Skin problems
  • Gastrointestinal problems like diarrhea

While for large animals, it can be used for 

  • Musculoskeletal problems such as sore backs or downer cow syndrome
  • Neurological problems like facial paralysis, 
  • Skin conditions like allergic dermatitis, 
  • Respiratory problems such as heaves and “bleeders”

Hydrotherapy is not commonly thought of as a pain relief modality, but sessions improve fitness and mobility, without aggravating joints. As a result, your dog’s compensating body can better support itself in the face of discomfort, reducing the amount of pain. Hydrotherapy sessions include shower massages and therapeutic warm water, which provides pain relief for dogs too. Hydrotherapy is usually performed by a canine hydrotherapist or veterinary physiotherapist. Swimming or walking in water, such as the shallow water by the beach or an underwater treadmill is also considered hydrotherapy. 

Canine hydrotherapy is beneficial with multiple injuries and health conditions such as: 

  • Neurological problems
  • ACL injuries
  • Other orthopedic injuries
  • Post-surgical recovery
  • Weight loss 

Dangers of Pain Medications for Dogs

Not all pain meds for dogs are suitable for your pup. Medications must be metabolized by the liver and excreted by the kidneys. As a result, if your dog has underlying conditions which affect these organs, the use of medications could compound the problem. Veterinarians are the best people to consult with regarding these side effects. They are more able to explain all the potential risks of medications. This is one of the main reasons it is important that you only give your dog medications that have been approved by your veterinarian.

There are many medications that cannot be given to your dog at the same time. For example, NSAIDs and corticosteroids cannot be given to your dog concurrently, as they can lead to life-threatening gastrointestinal ulcers and bleeding.

It’s easy to think that you can just give your dog a pain relief tablet from your medicine cabinet to tie him over until the morning when you can see a vet. This is one of the main causes of ibuprofen toxicity in dogs. You might mean well, but you can do more harm than good. It will not cost you anything to phone the emergency vet on call to ask over the phone what you can give your dog. If you can’t get hold of your vet, there are many home remedies for pain relief that don’t involve giving your dog medications. While reducing your dog’s pain may seem like the number one goal, remember that keeping him safe and healthy is the most important part.

Alpha Paw Sale
author image

Dr. Jo de Klerk, DVM

Member of Alpha Paw’s Board of Pet Experts

Dr. Jo de Klerk is a board-certified veterinarian, registered with both the RCVS and the SAVC. She graduated with an honors degree in Veterinary Medicine from the prestigious Royal Veterinary College in London in 2014. She then went on to complete a Master's degree in Tropical Animal Health through the Institute of Tropical Medicine, and she’s now pursuing a PhD in Life Sciences with the University of Warwick.

Dr. de Klerk is a professional writer alongside her clinical vet work and academic studies. To date, she has published ten books and hundreds of pet and veterinary articles, many of which can be viewed from her writing social media page. She is also a regular contributor to Veterinary Practice Today. Her clinical interests include pain management, rehabilitation, and global disease management.

Dr. Jo is also a loving pet parent to a rescue pup called Raven, who she describes as a cat in a fluffy dog’s body. Thanks for everything you do to support our mission, Dr. Jo!

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