What Every Owner Needs to Know about Pain Medications for Dogs

What can you do when your dog is in pain?

Reaching for bathroom cabinet meds may be tempting. But dogs aren’t human, and giving an unsafe med or the wrong dose of a safe alternative can make matters worse, much worse.

This article covers topics including

  • What pain tells you
  • When to give pain relief
  • Red flag signals
  • Bathroom cabinet meds
  • Licensed veterinary products
  • The use off-label use of human meds

[Warning: This article is not intended to replace a visit to vet. When your dog is in pain always call or visit your vet as the first and best line of action.]


Pain as a Symptom

Pain is a symptom. It’s nature’s equivalent of a warning light on a car dashboard and shouldn’t be ignored. Giving pain relief without working out why the dog is in pain can be dangerous. It’s equivalent to cancelling the brake warning light and driving home hoping everything is fixed.

If the dog is acting out of character and you suspect they’re in pain, try to localize the problem. Of course, the dog may be sore and snap if you touch something tender, so be sensible (and gentle) with the prodding and poking. Don’t get yourself hurt!

dog at vet clinic

Look for Clues

Dogs can’t talk but they will hint at what the problem is.

Look: For example: How is the dog walking, are they limping and if so which leg? Has their body posture changed? Are they rubbing their mouth or an ear?

Smell: Odd as it sounds, give the pet a sniff. Is there a bad smell and where is it coming from? Perhaps they have a rotten tooth or an ear infection.


Toileting: Has the dog been sick or had diarrhea?

Check for the obvious: For example, if the dog is lame, check their paw for a thorn or cut.

Do these checks first so that valuable symptoms don’t go unrecognized.

Also, most pain killers shouldn’t be given on an upset stomach. If suspect the dog has belly ache then always speak to a vet and never give pain relief unless advised it’s safe to do so.

What’s Urgent and What’s Not

When should the dog see the vet urgently and when can it wait?


Using our car analogy, a brake warning light is serious and the car needs to see a mechanic right away. Whilst an emission filter warning may even sort itself out with a quick blast down the highway.

Red Flag Signs

With your dog, there are certain red-flag signs that mean a vet visit is essential. These include:

Pain associated with severe lameness: The vet needs to rule out fractures and dislocations

Pain linked with blood: Blood loss from a wound or bowel needs immediate veterinary attention

Pain linked to changes in habits, such as refusing food or a severe stomach upset

Extreme Depression or Character Change: This could be a sign of a significant health concern

You’re worried. Always respect your instincts and if concerned for whatever reason, then see the vet

sick dog jack russell and tablets

Bathroom Cabinet Options

OK, so you’re confident the dog has a mild sprain and doesn’t need to see the vet. What options are there in the bathroom cabinet?

Home medication is a thorny topic. This isn’t because vets want to corner the market in medicating pets, but because dogs are very different to people, including how they handle meds.

Better Safe than Sorry Considerations

  1. Dose: Be incredibly careful about the dose. Even human medications considered ‘safe’ are easy to overdose due to a dog’s small size relative to a person. Indeed, small or toy dogs should not be given the human formulations as it’s almost impossible to get the dose small enough. Overdose can result in serious complications such as liver damage.
  2. Toxicity: Be aware some human medications contain additives that are toxic to dogs. The classic example is cold and flu remedies with added xylitol, which can be rapidly fatal to pets
  3. Cats: No bathroom cabinet painkillers are safe for cats. So skip home treatment and always head straight to the vet.
  4. Drug Interactions: If the pet is on other medications, has an existing health problem, or is very young or very old always speak to the vet before dosing. This is to check for drug interactions and organs that can’t process certain meds.
  5. Short Term Only: Drugs such as acetaminophen are strictly for short term use and given at the owner’s own risk. Be aware that even drugs considered safe for the odd dose, may have side effects when given in the long term. If the dog needs on-going help, then visit the vet to get a diagnosis and put a safe, long term plan in place.

What about Acetaminophen (paracetamol)?

Acetaminophen is a NSAID (see later) and generally regarded as ‘safe’ when used correctly in healthy adult dogs not taking other medications.

The dose for dogs is 10 mg/ kg. In other words, a 25kg Labrador would need 25 x 10mg or 250mg, (equivalent to half an adult paracetamol tablet). Even so, call the vet to make sure this is safe for your dog as an individual.

Acetaminophen is best given with food or after eating. Side effect includes a risk of liver damage.


What about Acetyl Salicylic Acid (Aspirin)?

Aspirin is not generally recommended for dogs, except under veterinary supervision. It carries a higher risk of complications than acetaminophen, including gastric ulceration, organ damage, and bleeding disorders.

For this reason, aspirin should not be given to the very young or old, those with organ failure or when taking drugs certain antibiotics, heart meds, diuretics, or other pain killers.

What about other human pain-relieving medications?

Bathroom cabinet meds such as ibuprofen should not be given to dogs except under veterinary supervision. There is a high risk of side effects such as gastric ulceration and organ damage. Likewise never give your prescription pain meds to the dog.

Veterinary Prescription Pain Meds for Dogs

The good news is there are lots of safe, effective veterinary medications available for dogs. Of these, most belong to the non-steroidal family of drugs.

Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs NSAIDs

The biggest family of licensed painkillers for dogs are the NSAIDs. These drugs work well against mild to moderate pain and most are licensed for long term use, such as for the arthritic dog. Examples include meloxicam, carprofen, deracoxib, and firocoxib.

NSAIDs sometimes get a bad rap, because of the potential for side effects, such as gastric ulcers or kidney damage. However, these mainly occur when the drugs are given inappropriately such as:

  • Given at the wrong dose
  • Not given with or after food
  • Dosed despite having a stomach upset
  • Combined with other medications that aren’t safe together

For maximum safety, the vet may want to screen the dog’s kidney function before prescribing a NSAID for the long term. Also, the vet will review all the pet’s other medications to ensure a NSAID is a safe match. And finally, if the dog has a tummy upset, skip the NSAID and let the vet know.

Why Do Vets Use Off License Human Medications?

A broken bone or slipped disc hurts…really hurts.

Whilst NSAIDs are great for moderate pain, for a major trauma they don’t cut it. For heavy duty pain relief, the vet may suggest using an unlicensed drug human drug.

Examples include:

  • Tramadol: Can be added to a NSAID to beef up the pain relief. May cause sedation and wobbliness.
  • Gabapentin: Useful for nerve-induced pain, such as a slipped disc.
  • Morphine derivatives: (Some of which are licensed for dogs) to relieve severe with gut related pain.

Managing Your Dog’s Pain

Giving bathroom cabinet meds may seem tempting, but it is likely to cause more problems than it cures. Don’t be tempted to cut corners because avoiding a vet visit may be more costly, both for your pet’s health and your pocket.

If in doubt, watch the dog closely and at the very least phone the vet for advice. That one phone call may save a whole lot of angst in the long term.


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