No one wants to see their furry canine friend suffering in pain. As a pet parent, your first thought may be to give your dog an over-the-counter pain medication. You have your dog’s best interest at heart, and you don’t want your best friend to suffer.
But is it safe to give your dog NSAIDs, like ibuprofen, or Tylenol? No. Under no circumstances should you ever give your dog any human medication unless it’s under the supervision of a veterinarian.
If human medications are out of the question, what can you do to give your dog some relief? Our guide will supply you with all of the information you need. But first, let’s talk about the signs and symptoms of pain in dogs.
How Can You Tell if Your Dog is in Pain?
It’s not easy to tell whether your dog is in pain.
In the animal kingdom, injured or elderly animals are more vulnerable to attack. That’s why dogs have inherited the instinct to hide any injuries or pain. There’s a survival advantage to acting like nothing is wrong – even when they’re feeling immense pain.
Even though our canine friends no longer have a reason to hide their pain, they instinctually do so to protect themselves and their social standing in their pack. This instinctual behavior can make it difficult to know when your dog is really in pain.
In fact, many veterinarians still accept the idea that dogs have a low sensitivity to pain (with the exception of a few breeds). Several surveys have shown that even after surgical procedures – like spaying or neutering – half of all vets will send dogs home without pain medication. Some vets even argue that a little pain is good for dogs because it keeps them quiet and inactive while they heal.
Could you imagine having a major surgery and the doctor sending you home without pain medication?
Just like with us humans, pain can be detrimental to your dog’s health. Pain is a stressor. When your pup is stressed, his body releases stress-related hormones that impact virtually every system in the body. The immune system, heart, adrenal glands and thymus glands go into a high state of activity. If left untreated, these organs may eventually become dysfunctional.
You love your dog. He’s a part of the family. You don’t want him to be in pain any longer than necessary. In fact, ignoring his pain can be harmful to his health.
But how can you tell if your dog – the master of disguise – is in pain?
Although the signs are more subtle, dogs do give some clues that they’re not feeling so great. Here’s what to look for:
Some – but not all – dogs become more vocal when they’re in pain. Just as we may shout or cry when we’re in pain, dogs may whine, whimper, yelp or howl when they are in pain.
If your dog is more vocal than normal and for no other apparent reason, you may want to schedule a vet visit to see what’s going on.
Some dogs lick their paws or other parts of their body constantly when they’re in pain. When a dog is injured, his instinct is to clean the wound by licking it. But dogs will even engage in this behavior when the wound is internal.
If your dog is constantly licking his paws and rubbing his eyes, he may have eye pain.
If you notice that your dog is excessively grooming himself, talk to your vet. This may be a sign that he’s in pain.
They say that eyes are the windows to the soul, and this is true for dogs, too. When dogs are in pain, you can often see it in their eyes.
- Pain in the eyes can result in larger (dilated) or smaller (constricted) pupils.
- Pain elsewhere in the body can result in dilated pupils.
- Dogs may frequently squint when they are in pain.
When dogs have eye pain, they may also paw at their eyes or drag them along furniture or carpet.
Sometimes, the signs are a little more obvious. If your dog’s eyes are in pain, the affected eye may be bloodshot.
Pain can also affect your dog’s breathing pattern.
Dogs that are in pain may pant or breathe:
- More shallow
These are signs that it may be painful for your pup to take a breath. If you notice any changes in your dog’s breathing pattern, schedule a vet visit as soon as possible.
Changes in Eating and Sleeping Patterns
Pain and discomfort can cause changes in your dog’s eating, sleeping and drinking patterns.
Just like us humans, dogs will sleep more if they’re in pain. Sleep helps the body heal, but it may also be too painful to move around.
Loss of appetite is another common sign of pain in canines. Most dogs are so excited to eat, so if your pup is suddenly uninterested in chowing down, it may be a sign that something is wrong. If your pup refuses to eat, see your vet as soon as possible.
Trouble Settling or Posture Changes
Pain can make it difficult for your dog to get comfortable sitting or lying down. If your dog is constantly changing positions or generally looks uncomfortable, he may be in pain.
Arthritis and hip pain can make it difficult for dogs to move around. Age or an injury may be the root cause of the problem. Look for other signs of mobility issues in your pup, such as a reluctance to jump, climb stairs or run around in the yard.
Dogs that are in pain may also:
- Move slowly
- Appear stiff
- Walk with a limp
- Have trouble laying down and getting back up
- Have a rigid posture
- Have an arched or sunken back
- Drop or tuck their tails
Dogs that are in pain may go into protective mode, becoming more aggressive and snappier than usual.
Pain can cause even the most docile of dogs to become aggressive, and it makes sense for them to behave this way. If you’re in pain, the last thing you want is someone touching you or potentially causing you even more pain.
Even if your dog isn’t nipping or growling, he may show signs that he’s uncomfortable and would like you to keep your distance, such as:
- Pinning his ears back
- Showing his teeth
- Moving away when you get too close for comfort
Dogs may show a wide variety of symptoms when they’re in pain – or they may show no symptoms at all. But if something seems off with your pup, consider taking him to the vet to see if there’s an underlying injury or illness that’s causing him pain.
Is Treatment Necessary?
Is pain medication always necessary for dogs? That depends on your vet’s opinion and the situation.
You wouldn’t take Vicodin for a paper cut, so there’s really no reason to load your dog up on pain medication for minor, day-to-day injuries.
If your dog gets pricked by a thorn or steps on a sharp rock, pain medication probably isn’t necessary. He may feel a slight bit of pain for a short while, but he’ll be back to his normal, rambunctious self in no time.
But if your dog is showing signs of pain and the problem is more severe, such as a traumatic injury or chronic illness, treatment is necessary. If the problem goes unresolved, it may be detrimental to your dog’s health.
The only way to determine whether treatment is necessary is to consult with your vet. If you think your dog may be in pain or he’s acting unusual, schedule a visit with your vet. It may be nothing, or it may be an underlying medical condition that needs to be treated.
What Medications Can I Give My Dog for Pain?
Dogs should never be given over-the-counter human pain medications without the explicit recommendation and guidance of your veterinarian.
If you think your dog is in pain and you want to give him some relief, talk to your vet about pain management.
Some vets will recommend canine-formulated aspirin that you can buy over the counter, but it is crucial that your vet give you the correct dosage and treatment plan.
Alternatively, vets may prescribe a pain reliever.
There are several nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) that are made specifically for dogs, including:
Novox Carprofen (a.k.a. Rimadyl)
Carprofen is an NSAID commonly prescribed to relieve pain and inflammation associated with:
- Hip dysplasia
- Postoperative soft tissue pain
- Orthopedic surgeries
Although not common, adverse side effects can include:
- Appetite changes
- Behavioral changes
Your veterinarian will provide dosage and treatment plan information. For informational purposes, the recommended dosage for dogs is 2 mg/lb of body weight each day.
Deracoxib (a.k.a. Deramaxx)
Deracoxib is an NSAID that’s part of the coxib class. It’s commonly prescribed for:
- Postoperative pain and inflammation associated with dental or orthopedic surgery
- Pain and inflammation caused by osteoarthritis
Side effects may include:
- Weight loss
Dosage will depend on the condition. Your vet will provide a thorough treatment plan. For your information, here are the most common dosages for different types of pain:
- Postoperative orthopedic pain and inflammation: 1.4-1.8 mg/lb daily or as needed for no longer than 7 days
- Osteoarthritis pain and inflammation: 0.45-0.91 mg/lb daily, or as needed
- Postoperative dental pain and inflammation: 0.45-0.91 mg/lb daily for 3 days
Firocoxib (a.k.a. Previcox)
An NSAID used to treat pain and inflammation in canines and horses. The drug is most commonly prescribed for arthritis, postoperative pain or trauma.
Firocoxib may be administered via a chewable tablet or an oral paste. It can be given with or without food, and it starts working in about 1-2 hours.
The most common side effects of this drug include:
- Decreased appetite
Firocoxib should be administered according to your vet’s instructions. For informational purposes, the recommended dose for oral administration is 2.27 mg/lb body weight once daily as needed.
Meloxicam (a.k.a. Metacam)
Meloxicam is an NSAID that works by reducing the hormones that cause pain and inflammation in the body.
In dogs, meloxicam can reduce:
Your veterinarian will provide dosage instructions that should be followed, but the most common dose is 0.1 mg/lb for the first day and 0.05 mg/lb once per day thereafter.
Grapiprant is another NSAID used to control osteoarthritis, pain and inflammation in dogs. It’s most commonly prescribed to treat osteoarthritis, and can be given to dogs as young as 9 months of age.
The drug is a new class of NSAIDS that blocks the primary mediator of canine osteoarthritis pain and inflammation, known as EP4, while reducing kidney, gastrointestinal and liver effects.
The most common side effects of this drug are:
- Decreased appetite
Follow your vet’s dosage instructions and treatment plan. The common dose is 0.9 mg/lb once daily.
Robenacoxib is an NSAID that is part of the coxib class. Because the drug targets inflamed tissue, it’s commonly used before and after surgical procedures.
Robenacoxib can be administered via an injection or oral tablets. Tablets may be given at home, and injections are administered at a veterinarian hospital.
The most common side effects of this drug include:
- Decreased appetite
Your veterinarian will provide dosage recommendations and a treatment plan. The standard dose for this drug is 0.91 mg/lb taken once daily for no more than three days.
These are the most common medications prescribed for pain, but other medications may be recommended by your vet, such as:
- Amantadine for cancer, arthritis and disc disease
- Tramadol for senior dogs with chronic pain
- Gabapentin for nerve pain
Talk to your vet about the medication being prescribed and ask any questions you may have about dosage, side effects and how the medication works. The more you know, the better you’ll be able to treat your dog for his pain.
Home Remedies for Pain
Along with vet-prescribed medications, there are also natural home remedies you can use to supplement your dog’s treatment plan. In cases of mild pain, these remedies may get rid of the pain on their own.
Natural pain remedies for dogs include:
Many older dogs suffer from arthritis and other joint issues, which can cause chronic pain. Joint supplements, like glucosamine chondroitin, can help provide some relief.
The ingredients in these supplements work to protect remaining cartilage while your pup’s body heals from the cartilage loss.
You can find chewable tablets and liquid forms of glucosamine for dogs.
Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplements
Omega-3 fatty acids also help protect the joints and reduce painful inflammation. Many dogs that suffer from arthritis and joint pain benefit from omega-3 supplements.
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), two forms of omega-3 fatty acids, are the most powerful for dogs. Fish is the most readily available source of omega-3 fatty acids, so supplements are derived from one (or more) of the following:
Some supplements also contain algae, flaxseed (a plant source of omega-3s) and kelp.
Along with reducing inflammation and protecting the joints, omega-3 fatty acids:
- Boost the immune system
- Improve heart and kidney health
- Reduce anxiety, hyperactivity and depression
- Protects the brain
You can find omega-3 supplements in chewable form and liquid form.
Just like with us humans, massage can help alleviate pain in our canine friends. The massaging action helps relax muscles, alleviate stress and stimulate nerves.
Gentle massaging and kneading can improve circulation to alleviate sore muscles and joints. It’s important to be careful not to press too hard. Stop massaging if your pet moves away, flinches or nips at you. The goal is to alleviate pain – not exacerbate the problem.
How to Massage Your Dog
- Find a quiet area of the home for the massage. Make sure that your dog is calm and comfortable. Don’t try to massage your pup if he’s fearful or uncomfortable.
- Start by gently stroking the affected area using flat palms. Press against the skin lightly.
- Slowly move your hands using a long, sweeping motion.
- While you’re massaging your dog, take note of any areas where there is swelling or increased sensitivity to pain. If your dog shows signs of discomfort, stop the massage.
- To give your dog an all-over massage, start at the head/neck and work your way down the body. Gently increase the pressure if your dog seems to be enjoying it.
Be careful not to press straight down on bones or joints. Avoid any areas where your pup does not want to be touched.
This video provides a great illustration of how to massage your dog:
Dogs suffering with joint and muscle pain may benefit from acupuncture. This alternative therapy can help alleviate pain while encouraging the body to heal after trauma.
Acupuncture is the practice of inserting tiny needles into strategic areas of the body. These areas are called acupuncture points, and they are where blood vessels and nerve bundles meet.
Acupuncture can alleviate pain by:
- Improving blood flow and oxygenation
- Encouraging the body to release anti-inflammatory substances
- Relax muscles, which can alleviate local pain
Make sure that you choose a licensed animal acupuncturist. Don’t worry about causing your dog more pain. Acupuncture needles are so thin that your pup won’t even feel them.
Heated Pads and Beds
A little heat can do wonders for pain. A heating pad or a heated bed can bring your pup some relief while helping him relax and sleep.
When heat is applied to an inflamed area, it dilates the blood vessels, improves blood flow and helps muscles relax.
Heating pads and beds come in all sizes and shapes. Just be careful not to overdo it. Keep the setting on medium or low, and keep the sessions to 15-20 minutes. You may also want to put a blanket between your dog and the heating pad.
Many herbs and herbal supplements can provide pain relief. But it’s important to talk to your vet before giving your pup any kind of herb – either in its raw state or in supplement form – to make sure that it’s safe for your four-legged friend.
Some herbs can interact with medications or cause effects that may be detrimental to your pup’s health.
Some of the most common herbs used to help ease canine pain include:
Ginger is known for its digestive benefits. It can help settle an upset stomach, alleviate nausea and relieve gas. But it can also help with arthritis pain.
Ginger has anti-inflammatory properties. It works by stopping the immune system from creating leukotrienes, which are what create inflammation in the first place.
In older dogs, ginger can improve circulation, which can help with mobility issues.
If your vet gives you the all-clear to serve ginger, try using raw ginger root. Remove the skin first, finely mince the root, and incorporate it into your dog’s food.
How much should you give your pup?
- 1/4 tsp. for miniature breeds
- 1/2 tsp. for medium dogs (up to 35 pounds)
- 3/4 tsp. for large dogs
Keep in mind that ginger has a strong smell and flavor. You may want to start with a smaller amount to see how your pup reacts to the taste.
Ginger can also thin the blood, so please make sure that you consult with your vet before giving it to your pup. Avoid giving this root if your dog is on anticoagulant drugs or before surgery.
Native to Africa, Devil’s claw is a plant with anti-inflammatory properties that acts as an analgesic. The active component in the plant is harpagoside, which reduces inflammation and alleviates pain. Devil’s claw can be especially effective against arthritis and muscle pain.
This herb is sold for human consumption, so you’ll need to adjust the dosage for your dog’s weight. Consult with your vet for help with dosing.
Avoid giving this herb if your dog is pregnant, lactating or diabetic. Devil’s claw may also interact with some medications, so make sure that you talk to your vet if your pup is taking any medications.
Known for its medicinal properties, licorice is often used to treat arthritis. Studies have shown that licorice root is fast-acting and works effectively to reduce inflammation.
Many people believe that glycyrrhizin, the plant’s primary component, is what causes this effect. The chemical makeup of glycyrrhizin is very similar to corticosteroids, but it doesn’t have the same negative effect on the immune system.
Licorice root typically comes in tincture form, and you can find it in many pet stores. Follow the dosing instructions on the bottle or from your vet.
Better known as frankincense, Boswellia is a resin that’s extracted from tree bark. The phytochemicals in Boswellia stop the production of leukotrienes, which are what cause inflammation in the body.
Boswellia can be used to alleviate pain caused by arthritis and inflammation. A 2004 Swiss study found that Boswellia reduced the clinical signs of arthritis in 71% of the participating dogs after 6 weeks of treatment.
You can find Boswellia in supplement form for dogs and humans. Adverse side effects are rare.
Comfrey has long been used in traditional medicine to treat a wide variety of ailments, including pain. Allantoin, which speeds up cell production, is the plant’s main component responsible for its medicinal properties. Comfrey also contains rosmarinic acid and other compounds that have pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory properties.
Make sure that you use comfrey leaf – not the root. Comfrey root contains a higher level of pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs), which can cause liver issues when given in large quantities. The leaf of the plant has such a low percentage of PAs that there’s really no need to worry (although you should still consult with your vet on dosing).
Alfalfa is loaded with beneficial nutrients, but it’s also a great treatment for arthritis. The plant is considered generally safe to give as a food supplement, even over the long-term.
The only concern here is that alfalfa is a crop that’s usually genetically modified. If you’re worried about feeding GMO food to your pup, opt for an organic version.
The simplest way to give alfalfa to your dog is to add a pinch of dried herb to his food each day.
Make sure that you use alfalfa before it flowers, and avoid using the seeds.
Yucca root is nutrient-rich and has medicinal properties. In fact, studies have shown health benefits for a wide range of animals, including chickens and cows.
The primary beneficial component of the plant is steroidal saponins, which can alleviate joint pain and inflammation. Many holistic vets claim a high success rate in easing pain caused by osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
Try adding 1/2 tsp. of dried or powdered root for each pound of dog food per day. When given over the long term, yucca can irritate the digestion system and cause vomiting. You can avoid this side effect by just giving your pup a two-day break from the plant each week.
Turmeric is part of the ginger family. Much like ginger, it has anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties that can provide your dog some natural relief. Turmeric’s benefits are backed by studies and research.
You can serve this root the same way you serve ginger. Purchase the fresh, raw root from the grocery store, and grate it into your dog’s food each day.
Horsetail is best known for its ability to heal injuries to bones and connective tissue. The herb is rich in bioactive silicon, which is the primary component used by the body to create bone, skin, cartilage and other connective tissues.
Avoid giving your dog horsetail if he has heart disease or high blood pressure. Lactating dogs should steer clear of this herb as well.
Pain Medications to Avoid
We’ve talked about common prescription pain medications for dogs and some natural ways to alleviate pain. But it’s also important to discuss the pain medications you should avoid.
The answer to this question is a simple one: avoid all of them.
Over-the-counter pain medications made for humans should never be given to dogs. Medications like aspirin can be prescribed to dogs, but it should only be recommended by a vet and with strict dosing instructions.
Let’s take a closer look at why OTC pain meds are so dangerous for dogs.
The Dangers of OTC Pain Medications for Dogs
There are two main types of OTC pain medications: NSAIDs and acetaminophen.
NSAIDs are very common pain relievers, and these include aspirin, naproxen (Aleve) and ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil, etc.). You probably have at least one NSAID in your home right now. These medications work by blocking cyclooxygenase enzymes (COX enzymes), which produce prostaglandins, lipids that cause pain and inflammation.
Acetaminophen, better known as Tylenol, is another common OTC pain medication. But no one knows for sure why Tylenol alleviates pain. It doesn’t reduce inflammation, but it still somehow reduces pain.
So, why is it so dangerous for dogs to take these medications?
NSAIDs block the production of prostaglandins. In dogs, prostaglandins do more than just promote inflammation and pain; they’re also responsible for maintaining the mucus layer of the gastrointestinal tract.
Without this layer, your dog’s stomach acid eats away at the gastrointestinal tract.
It also helps ensure proper blood flow to the kidneys and that your pup’s blood clots normally.
All of these important functions can start failing if prostaglandin production is inhibited too much.
Side effects of OTC pain meds can include:
- Loss of appetite
- Stomach ulcers
- Kidney damage or failure
- Bleeding disorders
- Liver damage or failure
Aspirin poisoning can be fatal if it isn’t treated in time.
Vets do prescribe aspirin for short-term pain relief, but never to manage chronic pain. If your vet does recommend an OTC pain medication, you will be given exact dosing instructions and a treatment plan.
Help! My Dog Accidentally Ate Pain Medication. What Do I Do?
Unless prescribed by your vet, you want to keep all human pain medications away from your dog. But what if your pup accidentally gets a hold of a bottle and eats a pill (or two)?
Call your vet right away. Be honest about the situation. Try to determine how many pills your dog consumed. The more pills your dog consumes, the greater the risk of severe side effects.
Treatment in this type of scenario may include:
- Stomach pump
- Surgery to fix a perforated stomach
Do not wait to call your vet if your dog has consumed an OTC pain medication (or any human medication).
No one wants to see their dog suffer. If your pup is in pain, make an appointment with your vet to discuss your treatment options. Prescription meds may be the right answer, or natural remedies may do the trick. Don’t take your dog’s treatment into your own hands. Consult with your vet to make sure your pup’s pain is treated safely.