Pain Relief 101: A Pet Owner’s Guide to Pet Pain Medications

Like people, pets can experience pain for a variety of reasons, and uncontrolled pain can lead to an increased release of stress hormones and delayed healing in some cases. Additionally, pets who are experiencing a chronic pain ailment such as arthritis have an increased risk for behavior problems and a decreased quality of life. It may be tempting to reach for an over the counter (OTC) human medication to relieve your pet’s pain. However, many OTC medications are dangerous to pets, especially cats, because they metabolize most medications differently than people. Bring your pet to your family veterinarian or our Animal Emergency Care team if you suspect they are experiencing any pain. Your veterinarian will perform a thorough physical examination, and several blood tests may be recommended to determine which pain medications will be the safest and most effective against your pet’s pain. Pets with underlying medical conditions such as liver or kidney disease cannot take certain pain medications, so regular veterinary checkups are critical for proper pain management. We review common types of pain relief available for your pet. 

Anti-inflammatory medications and pets 

Pets who have had surgery or a traumatic injury such as a broken leg, or who have been diagnosed with chronic osteoarthritis may be prescribed a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication (NSAID). This group of medications is used to reduce inflammation, pain, or fever and may be given by injection or an oral formulation. NSAIDS are similar to human OTC medications like aspirin. However, never give any human medications to your pet without direction from your veterinarian. Cats are sensitive to NSAIDs, especially acetaminophen, which can be deadly. Additionally, it is vital to follow all medication instructions because an NSAID overdose can lead to gastric ulcers or organ failure which can be life-threatening without treatment. Bring your pet in for immediate care if they show signs of NSAID toxicity, which may include:

  • Vomiting which may contain blood
  • Diarrhea 
  • Decreased appetite

Steroid medications and pets

Steroid medications such as prednisone are used to reduce inflammation and are often prescribed short-term with a tapering dose. This group of medications is commonly used for allergic reactions such as swelling from a bee sting. However, some steroid medications may be prescribed for other painful inflammatory conditions, including back pain or cancer-associated pain. Steroids also may be used in some cancer therapies because of their immunosuppressive properties in high doses. Steroids typically have more side effects than NSAIDs, and the two are never prescribed together. Before a steroid can be prescribed, your pet will require a veterinary examination and blood tests to ensure their organs can properly metabolize the medication. Side effects, which will subside once the medication course is completed, may include increased hunger, thirst, urination, and panting.

Narcotic medications and pets

Opioid medications are a large class of narcotic drugs that are naturally and synthetically derived from the opium poppy. Opioid medications such as butorphanol or hydrocodone may be prescribed short-term for your pet to alleviate acute pain or coughing, or to provide mild sedation before a medical procedure. In most cases, your veterinarian will not prescribe these medications for long-term use because they are closely regulated by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and have a high potential for dependence or abuse by humans. Opioid medications are primarily administered when your pet is hospitalized. This allows your pet to be monitored for any adverse effects and decreases the chances the medication could be ingested accidentally by a child or other pet in the household. Generally, opioid side effects are minimal for pets and may include sedation or an upset stomach. However, giving your pet the wrong dose or an extra dose can cause a low heart rate, difficulty breathing, low blood pressure, and death in some cases.

Muscle relaxant and nerve pain medications in pets

Pets who are experiencing back pain or other chronic pain conditions such as osteoarthritis may be suffering from muscle spasms from inflamed nerves. Muscle relaxants like methocarbamol are commonly prescribed to alleviate discomfort in pets with back or disc disease and in cats with bladder spasms from urinary tract disease.

It is not uncommon for pets with nerve pain or chronic arthritis pain to be prescribed gabapentin in conjunction with other anti-inflammatory medications or muscle relaxants. Most nerve pain medications and muscle relaxants have minimal side effects, but they may cause your pet to become drowsy.

Pet pain medication safety

Bring your pet in for a veterinary examination if they are experiencing any pain to ensure they quickly receive relief. Like people, pets may react to medications differently and it is critical to ensure they can properly metabolize any medication. Additionally, pet owners must carefully store their pet’s prescriptions because many are flavored and your pet may accidentally take an extra dose. Other pet medication safety tips include:

  • Never share your pet’s prescription with another pet or human.
  • Store pet medications out of the reach of paws and little hands. 
  • Bring your pet in for immediate care if they show any unexpected medication side effects. 
  • Never give your pet an expired medication. 
  • Never give your pet OTC human medications unless directed by your veterinarian.
  • Carefully read your pet’s prescription instructions and possible side effects.

Call your family veterinarian if you have any questions about treating your pet’s pain. If your pet is experiencing pain after hours, call Animal Emergency Care#AECprevents


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