- Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.
When you’re dealing with a headache, cramp, sprained ankle, or other injury, you might reach for over-the-counter (OTC) painkiller medications like Tylenol or Advil.
However, you can’t give these drugs to your dog or puppy: No human painkillers are safe for dogs. You can only give your dog pain medications specifically designed for canines and approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). These drugs also have to be prescribed by a vet, since there are no FDA-approved OTC painkillers for dogs.
If you think your dog is in pain, it’s natural to want to ease their suffering, but it’s also essential to consider their long-term health and needs. They can’t tell you why they’re in pain, so the best next step involves making an appointment with your veterinarian.
A vet can help diagnose the cause of your dog’s pain, whether that’s an injury, infection, or a health condition like arthritis. They can also decide what medication to give your dog for pain and prescribe a safe dose.
Which Painkillers Are Safe For Dogs?
“The main group of medications used to treat acute pain are nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs),” says Dr. Karen Humm, associate professor in transfusion medicine and emergency and critical care at the Royal Veterinary College in London. NSAIDs can also treat longer-term pain in dogs, Humm says.
NSAIDs are commonly used for dogs because the more modern versions have fewer potential side effects, though they may still pose some risk, according to Simon Hayes, BVM&S, MRCVS, veterinarian and primary care medical director of Linnaeus Veterinary Group in the UK and Ireland.
Other types of pain relief include:
- Corticosteroids: Like NSAIDs, corticosteroids help block inflammation pathways in the body, which can help relieve your dog’s pain. Your vet may prescribe these as oral medications or injection. Examples of steroids your vet may prescribe include prednisone, dexamethasone, and triamcinolone.
- Opioids: “These work by blocking pain receptors in the brain,” Hayes says, adding that they’re fast-acting drugs. Currently, the FDA has approved two opioids for dogs: buprenorphine and butorphanol. That said, some vets may also prescribe a different opioid, like tramadol, for off-label use. Your vet will almost always give them via injection—except for tramadol, which is an oral medication.
- Alpha 2 antagonists: This type of drug works by blocking neurotransmitters in the brain, Hayes says. Neurotransmitters are the brain’s chemical messengers that send signals to different parts of the body. Examples include medetomidine and dexmedetomidine, which work for anesthesia as well as pain relief. Your vet will give these fast-acting drugs via injection, according to Hayes.
- Local anesthetics: Instead of numbing pain across the whole body, local pain relievers reduce pain in smaller, specific areas. They work by blocking nerve transmission at the injection site, Hayes says. “Local anesthetics are excellent pain killers, as they’re very fast acting and can last for several hours. They’re routinely used in surgery to reduce post-operative pain.”
Medicine for acute pain in dogs
Acute pain refers to short-term pain that may happen with an injury or infection or after surgery.
The chart below lists painkillers your vet may prescribe for temporary pain relief, along with their potential side effects. Some side effects are more common than others, so ask your vet if you have concerns.
|Generic name||Brand name||Potential side effects|
|Carprofen||Carpox, Norocarp, Zinecarp, Carprodyl||
|Meloxicam||Loxicom, Metacam, Mobic, OroCAM||
|Deracoxib||Deramaxx, Ostimax, Doxidyl||
Medicine for chronic pain in dogs
Some dogs experience chronic (long-term) pain, often due to health issues like cancer, arthritis, and joint problems—or simply as part of the aging process.
If your vet recommends giving your dog painkillers for a longer period of time, they’ll usually prescribe a lower dose. More than likely, they’ll also recommend regular check-ups and blood tests to monitor your dog’s health, Hayes says.
The chart below lists painkillers your vet may prescribe for long-term pain relief, along with their potential side effects.
|Generic name||Brand name||Potential side effects|
|Gabapentin||Gantin, Neurotonin, Gralise, Aclonium||
|Amantadine||Symmetrel, Osmolex, Gocovri||
Why Are Human Pain Medications Dangerous For Dogs?
Giving your dog any human pain medication may cause serious health problems or even death. That’s because these medications contain ingredients that are toxic to dogs.
“Unfortunately, many cases of poisoning that we see are caused by this,” Hayes says. “The tablets we buy for ourselves are the size and dosage for humans, not pets.”
The chart below lists human painkillers and the dangerous side effects they have for dogs.
|Generic drug name||Brand name||Suitable for dogs?||Toxic effects|
|Ibuprofen||Advil, Midol, Motrin, Bufen||No||
|Naproxen||Aleve, Naprelen, Aflaxen, Naprosyn||No||
|Aspirin||Halfprin, Bayer, Ascriptin, Genacote||No||
|Acetaminophen||Tylenol, Dolono, Feverall, Cetafen||No||
|Opioids||Codeine, Vicodin, OxyContin, Percocet||No||
How to Manage Pain without Medication
You may have other options beyond medication for treating your dog’s pain. That said, research on alternative forms of pain relief for dogs remains limited. These approaches are usually recommended for dogs with long-term pain.
Before trying any treatment for your dog, it’s always best to check with your vet. They can offer more guidance on complementary and alternative forms of pain relief for dogs.
This form of holistic medicine involves gently inserting very thin needles into the skin at various points of the body. Experts believe acupuncture works by prompting the nervous system to release endorphins, which are the body’s natural pain-relieving chemicals.
“Acupuncture is particularly successful for myofascial pain and arthritis pain,” Humm says, adding that it may also help with pain caused by spondylitis and intervertebral disc disease.
This approach aims to help relax your dog’s muscles and joints to ease their pain.
Professionals trained in animal massage can give your dog a massage safely. You can also follow our expert tips to try this yourself.
Cold or heat therapy
Ever iced your sore joints with a pack of frozen peas? Applying a heat or ice patch to your dog could help work in the same way.
Cold therapy can tighten blood vessels, and this approach may be best for swelling after surgery, inflammatory conditions, or injuries.
Heat therapy, on the other hand, can loosen constricted blood vessels. Your dog may benefit from heat if they have arthritis, sore muscles, or chronic pain conditions.
Shock wave therapy
This non-invasive treatment involves using a device which delivers “pulses” of sound waves into the joints. The energy promotes blood circulation, which can help encourage healing by driving the body’s cells into anti-inflammatory mode. In fact, according to one study of 29 dogs receiving shock wave therapy for joint pain, 85% of the dogs had good or excellent outcomes.
Platelet-rich plasma therapy
This treatment involves removing a dog’s blood to activate their platelets, which are cells within the blood that play a major role in healing. Then, platelets are injected into the area where your dog has pain.
Vets generally recommend plasma therapy for dogs with severely affected joints, Humm says. The results of this treatment may vary, depending on how far a disease has progressed and how serious their symptoms are.
While plasma therapy usually doesn’t have any side effects, it may pose a risk of complications like infection.
Dietary and joint supplements
Giving your dog supplements like glucosamine, omega-3, and vitamins C and E may help soothe inflammation and support cartilage health, which could reduce chronic pain.
Before giving your dog a supplement or anything else for pain, it’s always best to check in with your vet. They can make the best treatment recommendations for your dog, depending on their symptoms and health needs.
At the end of the day, following your vet’s guidance is the best way to improve your dog’s acute or chronic pain, not to mention any underlying conditions causing the pain.