Few things are worse than seeing your four-footed friend in pain.
Pain not only hurts (source: Captain Obvious M.D.), it causes significant stress too. And as most doctors and vets will tell you, stress makes pain worse, thereby sparking a vicious cycle that may greatly reduce your dog’s quality of life.
So, most owners are keen to relieve their dog’s pain whenever possible. We’ll talk about the various ways to do so below, but first, we’ll talk about some of the best ways to determine if your dog is hurting.
Your dog can’t tell you when she’s in pain, so you’ll have to do a bit of detective work on her behalf.
Fortunately, there are a few relatively reliable signs that can indicate your pup is suffering. These include:
Some of these signs are admittedly subtle or vague, but fortunately, several often occur simultaneously, which will make it easier for you to deduce that your dog is in pain and identify the afflicted area.
For example, you may notice your dog breathing very quickly and acting a bit anxious. Then, when you check her out, she won’t let you touch her paw and limps away. You needn’t consult Dr. Gregory House to figure out that your pooch’s paw or leg is hurting.
Conversely, there are also occasions during which it can be difficult to identify the painful area or be sure that your dog is in pain. For instance, a depressed or lethargic dog may just be having a bad day, or she may be suffering from any number of painful ailments.
You’ll want to contact your vet anytime you feel like your dog is experiencing moderate or long-term pain, especially if you aren’t sure which area of the body is causing the trouble.
Obviously, pain exists along a spectrum, and minor pain isn’t always a big deal. You probably don’t need a morphine drip to get through a sprained ankle, nor would your dog need pain relief for run-of-the-mill, day-to-day injuries.
It’s unlikely your dog will suffer very much if, for example, she steps on a thorn. It’ll sting, but it probably won’t cause serious pain, and the pain will probably disappear entirely once you do the whole mouse-and-the-lion bit. These types of minor injuries probably don’t require any pain medication or therapy at all – especially if your dog isn’t demonstrating any signs that indicate she’s in pain.
But other types of pain can have quite an impact on your dog’s well-being. This not only includes things like traumatic injuries and cancer, but the pain associated with chronic conditions, such as arthritis or hip dysplasia too. In these cases, pain management is certainly appropriate and humane.
Ultimately, you’ll want to consult with your vet about your dog’s pain and the best treatment strategies to implement.
There are a variety of different medications used to treat pain, and different ones are better suited for treating some types of pain more than others. We’ll discuss some of the most effective and commonly administered medications below.
Never provide any of these medications to your dog without first consulting your veterinarian. Note that many of these medications are not specifically approved for use in dogs, making it especially important to work closely with your vet when using medications in this type of “off-label” manner.
Note: Most medication dosages use kilograms, rather than pounds. Just remember that 1 kilogram = 2.2 pounds, if you need to convert the units.
Veterinarians occasionally recommend ibuprofen (often sold under the brand name Advil) for dogs suffering from mild to moderate pain. It is typically prescribed at a rate of 5 milligrams per kilogram of body weight and it is usually administered shortly before or after a meal
However, ibuprofen isn’t an ideal medication for dogs, and it does have several drawbacks. Long-term use of ibuprofen can cause gastrointestinal ulcers, and it has a very narrow margin of safety, which make overdoses a very real possibility.
Ibuprofen is not FDA-approved for canine use and some authorities (including the Merck Veterinary Manual) recommend avoiding it whenever possible.
Like ibuprofen, aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) is a NSAID (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug) medication that is typically used to treat pain associated with musculoskeletal issues or osteoarthritis. However, aspirin can cause gastric ulcers and reduces the blood’s ability to clot, so it is rarely recommended for long-term use.
Dosage regimens vary based on the health and history of the afflicted animal, but most vets prescribe between 10 and 40 milligrams per kilogram of body weight.
Acetaminophen (better known as Tylenol) is another common over-the-counter pain medicine that vets occasionally recommend for dogs. Tylenol works in relatively similar fashion to ibuprofen and aspirin, but it does not cause gastric ulcers or blood-clotting problems like these other drugs do.
Vets usually advise dosages ranging from 10 to 15 milligrams of acetaminophen per kilogram of your dog’s body weight.
Carprofen is another NSAID that is used to treat mild to moderate pain associated with musculoskeletal issues, osteoarthritis, and surgical recovery. While carprofen was briefly used in human medicine, it is now solely used in veterinary medicine.
Carprofen is typically prescribed at a rate of 4.4 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. While most dogs tolerate carprofen well, side effects occur at about the same rate (1 report per 500 cases) as they do with many other NSAIDs. Some vets prefer to administer an injectable form of the medicine.
Ketoprofen is a medication used to treat acute pain and is rarely prescribed for more than five days at a time. Vets usually administer ketoprofen as dosages of 1 milligram per kilogram of body weight, either via an oral tablet or an injection.
Ketoprofen often causes the same types of side effects that other NSAIDs do, including gastrointestinal bleeding and ulcers. It can also reduce the blood’s ability to clot.
Etodolac is another NSAID that is FDA-approved for use in dogs. It is typically administered at a rate of 10 to 15 milligrams per kilogram of body weight, and relatively few side effects are observed at this dosage range.
Etodolac is often specifically used to treat the pain and immobility caused by hip dysplasia.
Another NSAID approved for use in dogs, meloxicam comes in two different liquid forms, including an oral solution and an injectable form. Meloxicam doesn’t usually cause gastrointestinal problems as often as many other NSAIDs.
Vets typically administer a relatively high “loading dose” of 0.2 milligrams per kilogram at the onset of treatment, but subsequent doses are reduced to 0.1 milligrams per kilogram. Once the pain is brought under control, the dosage is usually reduced until the lowest effective dose possible is achieved.
Phenylbutazone was one of the first NSAIDs approved for canine use by the FDA, but it is also an important drug used to treat pain in horses. It is usually administered in tablet form to dogs, but it is also available as a gel or paste.
While this drug is typically considered pretty safe, most vets try to prescribe it at the smallest dosage possible to limit side effects, which can include gastrointestinal bleeding, ulcers, and bone marrow suppression. Phenylbutazone is usually administered at a rate of 3 to 7 milligrams per kilogram of body weight.
Opioid painkillers – including morphine, fentanyl, and hydromorphone, among others – are often used to treat severe pain in dogs. Opioids are only available via prescription, and they can cause serious (potentially fatal) side effects, so they should only be used when necessary and under close veterinary supervision.
Opioids are typically reserved for treating things like post-operative pain, cancer, and severe osteoarthritis. Different opioids are used to treat different types of pain, and they’re administered in dosages ranging from 0.005 to 10 milligrams per kilogram of body weight, depending on the drug selected and your dog’s health.
Corticosteroids (both naturally-occurring and synthetic forms) help halt the body’s inflammatory response, which can help alleviate or reduce some types of pain – particularly pain associated with allergies, arthritis or skin disorders. Many corticosteroids are manufactured in injectable form, but oral formulations also exist and are easier for owners to administer.
Corticosteroids can cause a number of health problems when used over a long period of time, so vets prefer to use them for as short a period of time as is possible. Corticosteroids may be used in conjunction with other pain-killing medications.
Gabapentin is an old medication, which has been used in human medicine to treat everything from seizures to pain to restless leg syndrome. However, many veterinarians have begun using it to treat pain and other conditions in dogs too.
Gabapentin is rarely taken on its own; instead, it is usually administered along with an opioid or NSAID, as it appears to enhance the efficacy of these drugs. Gabapentin has shown very promising results in the treatment of long-term, mild-to-moderate pain.
All dosages provided above taken from the Merck Veterinary Manual.
Medicines aren’t the only way to treat pain – there are several different techniques your vet can use to help your pooch feel better. You can even implement a few of these strategies on your own, without your vet’s help (but you should always keep them in the loop).
Some of the most effective options include:
Surgery is the most invasive non-medicinal strategy for treating pain, but it is often the most effective. In many cases, it is the only viable solution. Different types of pain require different surgical solutions, and some are more elaborate than others.
For example, dogs suffering from hip dysplasia occasionally require total hip replacement surgery, which is as invasive as it sounds. Spinal problems, tumors, and urinary tract stones can also require relatively invasive surgeries.
By contrast, dogs suffering from sprained ligaments or minor gastrointestinal problems may be good candidates for laparoscopic procedures. These surgeries are often performed via long, flexible cameras and instruments, thereby alleviating the need to make gigantic incisions.
Physical therapy varies based on the type of ailment being treated, but it usually consists of a variety of stretches and exercises to resolve mechanical problems with the musculoskeletal system. It won’t be of much use when treating tumors or digestive problems, but it can do wonders to help reduce the pain associated with musculoskeletal injuries.
Hydrotherapy is essentially physical therapy that takes place in the pool. The therapist will have your dog enter the water and go through a series of stretches, mobility-increasing movements, and exercises. Because water imparts more resistance and support than air, it can be very effective for treating a variety of muscle-, tendon-, and joint-related pains.
Hydrotherapy also allows your dog to get a bit of exercise without having to endure the impact that traditional exercise often entails.
People have been using massage therapy to help reduce pain for centuries, and many practitioners have begun treating dogs too – some even specialize in canine massage. Massage comes in a variety of flavors, from those based on soothing and gentle Swedish-inspired techniques to more aggressive trigger-point and deep-tissue approaches.
Accordingly, massage can be helpful for treating a variety of different problems, such as sore or tight muscles. Massage is often grouped into the “alternative medicine” category, but unlike many other such treatments, there is some empirical data to support its practice (most such evidence concerns humans, but it’s likely applicable to dogs too).
Many members of the medical and veterinary communities are relatively skeptical about the efficacy of acupuncture, but there is a small amount of evidence that provides at least some support for its use in treating pain. Efficacy aside, it appears to be relatively safe, and some dogs appear to enjoy it.
It’s worth discussing with your vet, but it is probably best applied to animals who’ve not responded to other treatments.
Some types of pain may improve with increased exercise, while some others may improve with increased rest. You’ll need to discuss the issue with your vet, but in either case, this is a very easy solution. Just be sure to avoid high-impact activities if your dog is suffering from joint problems.
While the strategies listed below won’t provide immediate pain relief, they may help to reduce many types of discomfort and improve your dog’s quality of life.
No matter what type of pain they experience, dogs who enjoy a good night’s sleep will likely feel better than those who don’t sleep well, so it is always a good idea to ensure your dog has a high-quality orthopedic mattress. Additionally, the support and comfort these beds provide can reduce pain associated with hip dysplasia, arthritis, and spinal problems.
Laying on a warm surface helps to improve blood flow and reduce mild to moderate musculoskeletal pain, such as occurs in dogs suffering from hip, leg or spine problems. Just make sure that any heated bed or mat you choose provides a soft surface on which your dog can lay.
Whether due to old age, decay or trauma, many dogs suffer from oral pain. This can make it very hard for them to eat, and many may begin refusing food entirely. However, by moistening your dog’s kibble or switching to a canned food, you can make it easier for your dog to eat and help eliminate the pain associated with dental problems.
Cold temperatures can exacerbate some types of pain, so you may want to consider outfitting your dog with a sweater or jacket during the winter. Big dogs typically remain warmer than small dogs, so you may want to put a sweater on your Labrador just while going on walks outside; your Yorkie, on the other hand, may need to wear it 24-7.
Dogs who’ve suffered foot injuries may enjoy the protection and warmth that booties provide. They’re especially helpful for walks that take place during cold temperatures or inclement weather, but they may also protect your pup’s feet from hot sidewalks during the summer.
Booties may also help dogs suffering from leg or joint problems enjoy better traction on slippery floors.
Omega-3 fatty acids help to reduce inflammation, which may help relieve some of the pain associated with arthritis, hip dysplasia, and similar ailments. Some foods contain ingredients (such as salmon and flaxseed, among others) that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, but you can also purchase stand-alone omega-3 fatty acid supplements if you’d prefer.
Maintaining a proper body weight won’t directly alleviate your dog’s pain, but it can help reduce the strain placed on her muscles and joints, which may help her feel a bit better. Discuss your dog’s body condition with your vet and find out an ideal target weight for your pup.
It isn’t always easy to help dogs lose weight – particularly if they are already suffering from health problems that limit their mobility. In such cases, you may need to switch to a low-calorie food.
Stress, depression, and anxiety can all make pain worse, so do your best to keep your dog’s spirits high while she’s battling any type of painful condition. Among other things, this means you’ll want to ensure she’s adequately stimulated by providing her with plenty of toys and allowing her to exercise as much as is possible with her ailment.
It may also be wise to provide her with a cozy crate, so she has a dark, quiet place to hide when she’s feeling overwhelmed.
It’s always difficult to see your pup in pain, but with veterinary assistance and a bit of effort, you can usually help your pooch feel better.
Tell us about your experiences treating your dog’s pain below – your story may help others find a good way to treat their own dog.
Ben is a proud dog owner and lifelong environmental educator who writes about animals, outdoor recreation, science, and environmental issues. He lives with his beautiful wife and spoiled-rotten Rottweiler JB in Atlanta, Georgia. Read more by Ben at FootstepsInTheForest.com.