Hearing your dog whimper or yelp can definitely jar you. Seeing your pup limp can worry you. Witnessing your senior dog with arthritis gingerly walk up steps can make you cringe.
Like us, our dogs are not shielded from pain that is simply defined as any physical discomfort caused by injury or disease. Pain can be acute, such as suffering from a broken leg, or chronic, such as contending constantly with arthritis in the joints. And pain can definitely affect your dog’s behavior, shifting him from being energetic and happy to one who now hides, acts depressed or becomes a bit nippy if you touch a painful area on his body.
“Fixing pain is one of the most rewarding activities I’ve been involved in during my career, as it allows me to facilitate, enhance, lengthen and strengthen the precious family-pet relationship,” says Dr. Robin Downing, a veterinarian board-certified as a veterinary pain practitioner and canine rehabilitation practitioner, who heads The Downing Center for Animal Pain Management in Windsor, Colorado.
She points to a watershed moment during veterinary school in the 1980s when a professor advised to not take away all of the pain in dogs recovering from surgeries because the dogs would “move around and hurt themselves.”
“Even then, as a mere student, that did not sound right,” says Dr. Downing, who is now regarded as a leader in pain management for pets.
Fortunately for our dogs, pain management is garnering much-needed attention in recent years. The growing arsenal of pain-relieving options now ranges from medications, laser therapy, acupuncture, acupressure and hydrotherapy to joint supplements and basic warm-ups before vigorous hikes or runs followed by muscle- stretching cooldowns.
Let’s take a closer look at medications, therapies and supplements used for pain management. Here are four common medications prescribed to dogs to alleviate pain:
This steroid is used to replace or supplement glucocorticoids in dogs dealing with shock or Addison’s disease. It is also used as an anti-inflammatory for dogs experiencing pain, fevers or cancers, such as lymphoma.
“The pros of using a steroid are that it has great immediate effects of reducing pain and inflammation in our pets,” says Dr. Lindsay Butzer, a second-generation veterinarian at the Clint Moore Animal Hospital in Boca Raton, Florida, and PetMeds Partner. “The cons are that a steroid cannot be used long-term due to severe side effects, such as developing liver disease, Cushing’s disease, diabetes and because it suppresses the immune system.”
This opioid is used for pain control and blocks pain pathways in a dog’s body. It is often used to control post-surgical or chronic pain for dogs dealing with arthritis or hip dysplasia.
“The pros of tramadol are that it is a non-expensive pain drug with a wide margin or safety and minimal organ damage,” Dr. Butzer says. “The cons are that it can lower the threshold for seizures in dogs with a history of epilepsy and can cause moderate constipation.”
This neuropathic pain medication is generally used as a sedative and pain medication. It helps keep dogs calm and relaxed.
“Gabapentin has been available as a low-cost generic for dogs for nearly 20 years,” Dr. Downing says.
Adds Dr. Butzer, “It has a wide margin of safety and there is very little organ dysfunction noticed on bloodwork after long-term use. The cons of gabapentin are minimal. Most dogs have no side effects.”
Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatiories (NSAIDS)
This pain category includes drugs Rimadyl, Galliprant, Previcox and Metacam — all formulated for dogs.
“NSAIDS remain the cornerstones of pain management, both acute and chronic,” Dr. Downing says. “They address pain and inflammation. There is no one ‘best’ NSAID, as the best NSAID is the one that works best for a specific patient.”
When paired with other pain-relieving products over time, veterinarians can safely lower the NSAID dose.
“This lowering provides potential protection of the organs responsible for clearing the drug from the body,” Dr. Downing says.
Major caution: Never give your dog human NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, as they can cause renal failure and even death.
“It is not safe to give your dog over-the-counter pain medicine, Tylenol or Advil for pain,” Dr. Downing says. “Ibuprofen is very toxic in dogs and can cause death. OTC meds from the human medicine cabinet are just not a good choice.”
Supplements for Pain
Dr. Butzer acknowledges the rise in interest among pet parents to give their dogs CBD oil or joint supplements that contain glucosamine chondroitin.
“CBD has been used now for over a decade and has been showing great pain relief in pets with safe dosing margins,” Dr. Butzer says. “As for supplements, look for those with the NASC (National Animal Supplement Council) quality seal, as you can feel confident that this product comes from a company that is committed to quality and consistency.”
Dr. Downing says nutraceuticals are in their own class for pain relief in dogs but unleashes this advice:
“Buyer beware,” she says. “This is a relatively unregulated industry, although it has gotten better in recent years. We now have several safe and effective nutraceuticals that have study data to support their use.”
Verdict: Both say to always talk to your veterinarian before giving your dog any OTC product.
Expect pain management in dogs to continue evolving.
“Technology continues to advance, so who knows what additional options we will have available that utilize various types of energy or mechanics?” Dr. Downing says. “At some point, the holy grail of cartilage replacement will be discovered and that will be a game changer in osteoarthritis management.”
Pain-Relieving Therapeutic Options
The healing power of touch can be effective in relieving pain in dogs. A pioneer in the use of
acupressure on pets is Sue Furman, PhD, founder of the Holistic Touch Therapy School of Canine Massage and Acupressure in Victoria, Texas.
“Acupressure is used to control pain, cure disease and promote healing,” Dr. Furman says. “The meridians or channels in a body are called Chi, which is considered life energy. When Chi gets blocked, it can initiate pain or discomfort or disease. If you stimulate particular points, you can initiate healing.”
For some canine patients, Dr. Downing combines the use of therapeutic laser (known as photobiomodulation) followed by acupuncture. She also has some pet parents use the tPEMF (Assisi loop) in between clinic sessions at home.
“All of these are safe physical modalities that play a role in canine chronic pain management,” she says. “They are safe, effective and grounded in good data.”