As a devoted pet parent, the last thing you want is to see your dog in pain or discomfort. Of course, you try your best to avoid your pet experiencing pain at all, but in some instances, such as age-related arthritis in dogs, it is out of your control. In the event that your dog is in pain, you find yourself wondering what you can do to help reduce your dog’s pain and keep them comfortable.
Fortunately, there are many medical, supplemental, and holistic treatments that can provide reliable pain relief for dogs. In this article, we’ll discuss signs of pain in dogs, types of pain medications for dogs, and other pain relief techniques you can implement for your dog.
How to Tell If a Dog Is in Pain
Most dogs instinctively hide their pain. This was a great survival tool for dogs in the wild who didn’t want to be seen as an easy target for predators, but it isn’t so great for pet owners who find it difficult to determine whether or not their furry best friend is uncomfortable. Therefore, it is important that dog owners learn to recognize signs of pain in dogs. This will also help them determine if any pain relieving tactics you and your veterinarian try for your dog are working effectively.
Pain in dogs can manifest in a variety of physical and behavioral changes, some of which are more obvious than others. Dogs in pain may show one or more of the following signs:
- Yelping or whining
- Decreased activity
- Irritability or abnormal aggression
- Hunched posture
- Decreased appetite
- Reluctant to walk or play
OTC Pain Relief for Dogs
It’s easy to be tempted by our medicine cabinet and give our pet some of our tablets in an attempt to help them feel better. However, you should never administer pain medications to your dog without consulting a veterinarian first.
Most over-the-counter human pain medications are toxic to dogs. While low doses of aspirin may be tolerated by your dog, recent studies have suggested that it is a relatively ineffective pain medication in dogs, and likely to result in vomiting, diarrhea, or other adverse effects. Other medications such as Ibuprofen (i.e., Advil, Motrin) and Naproxen (i.e., Aleve, Midol) are highly toxic to dogs, and should never be given, even in small amounts.
Acetaminophen, most commonly known as Tylenol, is relatively safe when given at the correct dose for dogs under the guidance of your veterinarian. However, this dose is not the same as the human dose due to metabolic differences between species. An overdose of acetaminophen can cause red blood cell toxicity, so always consult your veterinarian before giving your dog this medication.
Types of Pain Medication for Dogs
Veterinarians can prescribe a variety of highly effective pain medications that are generally safe for most pets to take. Pain medications for dogs fall into three main categories:
Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatories (NSAIDs)
The over-the-counter medications mentioned earlier are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or NSAIDs, but all of those are designed for human use. Veterinarians can prescribe NSAIDs for dogs that are specific for canines.
NSAIDs work by blocking a specific enzyme called cyclooxygenase (COX), which the body uses to make prostaglandins. Prostaglandins are the precursors to inflammation. By reducing the production of prostaglandins, inflammation is reduced and less pain, discomfort, and fever is experienced. Unfortunately, prostaglandins are used for beneficial bodily processes like protecting the gastrointestinal tract and assisting in blood clotting. Therefore, to mitigate serious side effects, these medications should only be administered under direct supervision of your dog’s veterinarian.
Carprofen is one of the most commonly prescribed NSAIDs for dogs. It is also sold under the names of Rimadyl, Novox, Vetprofen, and Carprovet. Another very commonly prescribed NSAID for dogs is Meloxicam, also known as Metacam and Meloxidyl. Both of these NSAIDs work similarly in the body, and are prescribed to reduce pain and fever due to any cause such as post-operative pain, pain from trauma, or pain secondary to illness or infection.
Another NSAID prescribed with increasing frequency is Grapiprant, known mostly as Galliprant. This NSAID is specifically prescribed for treating osteoarthritis pain in dogs. Like other NSAIDs, Grapiprant reduces prostaglandins, however, it does not block COX enzymes, and specifically focuses on a dog’s joints. Therefore, it does not affect any other part of your pet and does not have to be cleared by the kidneys or liver. This makes Grapiprant a safer choice for senior pets or for chronic use in pets suffering from osteoarthritis, such as dogs with luxating patellas or hip dysplasia.
Veterinarians can prescribe opioids to help control pain in pets. The opioids used by veterinarians are the same as many of those used for humans, such as morphine, entanyl, butorphanol, codeine, and buprenorphine.
Opioids are excellent pain-relieving medications. These medications inhibit pain by attaching to proteins on nerve cells in the brain, spinal cord, gut, and other parts of the body, which blocks pain messages from being sent through the spinal cord to the brain.
Opioids are usually handled very well with little side effects when used at the proper pain relieving dosages.
Typically, these medications will be used in the hospital or clinic setting on an in-patient basis. This is mainly due to the risk of drug abuse by humans. In some cases, however, especially when pets are extremely painful, your veterinarian may prescribe codeine tablets or even place a long acting transdermal fentanyl patch on your dog. Fortunately, we do not have to worry about addiction in pets, as they are unable to act on their urges.
Depending on your dog’s specific cause of pain, your veterinarian may prescribe other pain medications such as gabapentin, methocarbamol, tramadol, and steroids. These medications are also prescribed in humans, but at different doses.
Gabapentin is prescribed for neuropathic pain relief, so it is commonly used in dogs with intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) or cauda equina syndrome. However, gabapentin is also often prescribed for any soft tissue injury or trauma cases since there are nerves throughout a dog’s entire body that can contribute to their pain and discomfort. It’s not entirely understood how gabapentin works, but researchers believe it blocks calcium channels which reduces the release of excitatory neurotransmitters and therefore dampens pain. Gabapentin is a very safe medication with its most common adverse effect being mild sedation or drowsiness.
Methocarbamol is a muscle relaxant. By helping the muscles relax, tension dissipates and pain is reduced. This medication is often prescribed for dogs with back pain, acute inflammatory muscle disease, or traumatic wounds. While this medication is relatively safe, some dogs do not tolerate methocarbamol well and can develop lethargy, weakness, ataxia, and nausea.
Tramadol is a partial opioid agonist and works by inhibiting the reuptake of serotonin and norepinephrine. This medication was once prescribed often for dogs in pain, especially dogs that could not be given NSAIDs due to renal or liver disease. However, the latest research shows that Tramadol does not work well to relieve pain in dogs. It may still be prescribed, however, as it is relatively safe and a good option for dogs that can’t handle other pain medications well.
Steroids, such as prednisolone or methylprednisone, are not pain relieving medications directly, but work very well for reducing inflammation in a dog’s body when prescribed at a certain dose. By relieving inflammation, pain is secondarily reduced. Steroids are not a typical first option for pain relief as they have a long list of potential side effects, but in some instances such as ear infections, a short course of steroids can provide pain relief while also decreasing swelling and allowing for easier management and treatment of a dog’s disease.
Natural Pain Relief for Dogs
In addition to medications for pain relief, dogs can be given a variety of herbal remedies, such as turmeric or boswellia, or supplements like glucosamine and CBD oil. Unfortunately, the evidence behind most of these is mainly anecdotal. This does not mean that they don’t work, but it does mean that proven medications for pain relief should not be denied to your dog in favor of these alternatives. Instead, it is best to use them as conjunctive treatments.
The one supplement with proven efficacy is omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 supplements have been shown by randomized controlled studies to reduce inflammation and relieve pain for a variety of medical conditions in dogs. While this supplement can help, it should not be relied upon alone for sufficient pain control, and should be used as a part of a multimodal pain control approach.
Other Dog Pain Relief Tips
In addition to relieving pain through medications, herbs, and supplements, dog owners can make changes around the house to improve the comfort of their pet. Any dog that is feeling unwell should be given a quiet, clean, and comfortable place to rest. Activity should be limited until the pain is managed unless otherwise directed by a veterinarian. Dogs with mobility issues can greatly benefit by the use of an orthopedic dog bed and adding ramps or non-slip surfaces to the home, especially those with hardwood floors.
Veterinarians are also able to provide other non-invasive pain relieving treatments such as laser therapy, physical rehabilitation exercises, acupuncture, and more. Depending on the dog’s source of pain, owners can provide a massage to improve blood flow and aid in relaxation.
With so many options for pain relief in dogs, it can be overwhelming to know what to try for your pet. Your veterinarian will help guide you through the decision making process and together you can come up with the best pain control approach that works for you and your pet. Keep in mind that it can sometimes be a trial and error process. However, with a little patience and persistence, your dog can enjoy a comfortable and happy life.