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Do dogs and cats feel pain?

Thankfully, an old-fashioned notion that animals do not feel pain in a way comparable to humans is fading from our society. Dogs and cats share the same peripheral pain nerves as human beings and, when these nerves are stimulated, similar portions of their brains are activated. To prevent prolonged suffering, we can use analgesics (pain relieving medications) to mitigate pain and, ideally, then address the underlying source of pain.

If my pet is feeling better from the pain medications, will he/she become overly active and exacerbate things?

Potentially. This is where maintaining control of your pet’s activity and environment come into play. Depending on the source of pain, some degree of activity restriction is typically indicated. For dogs, this usually means limiting leashed walks to 5-15 minutes on level surfaces, avoiding stairs, jumping on and off furniture, and roughhousing, and sometimes using special equipment such as a harness to avoid placing pressure on a painful area or to help with rising from a laying position. Cats commonly self-limit better than dogs, but outdoor activity, jumping, and roughhousing should be discouraged. Regardless, allowing an animal to be in pain to prevent pain is not logical or effective. For particularly active pets, analgesics that provide a degree of sedation and anxiety relief may be appropriate and further anxiety relieving medications can be prescribed as needed.

What are the most common causes of pain in dogs and cats?

In younger animals, trauma is a common source of pain, but developmental derangement can also be painful. Middle aged animals can suffer from vertebral disc herniations and infections, while older dogs and cats often develop arthritis, while can range from mild to debilitating, and cancers, some of which are painful. There are numerous additional causes of pain, any of which can potentially affect an animal at any age.

What over-the-counter pain medications are available?

Options are limited. Aspirin has long been the go-to for dog pain relief if a veterinarian isn’t available. Unfortunately, aspirin is not a very effective analgesic and potentially harmful if dosed improperly, if underlying stomach, kidney, or liver disease is present, or if the dog is receiving another anti-inflammatory drug. Even when dosed properly, giving aspirin to you dog will limit a veterinarian’s ability to prescribe other, more effective anti-inflammatory drugs without causing stomach ulcers and kidney damage for up to a week. Aspirin is still used in veterinary medicine as a blood thinner (to control excessive blood clotting), albeit at a 20-40x reduced dose when compared to its analgesic dose. Even this use of aspirin is falling out of favor, with medications like clopidogrel (Plavix) proving to be more effective.

Can over-the-counter medications hurt my pet?

Yes, very much so. Human non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen (Aleve) can cause fatal stomach ulcers and perforation, kidney failure, and liver damage. Never give these medications to your pet. Acetaminophen (Tylenol), a miscellaneous human analgesic, can also cause fatal liver failure and gastric ulcers. In special cases veterinarians may use acetaminophen for pain control, but it must be dosed carefully and monitored closely.

What medications are typically prescribed?

Prescribed analgesics include NSAIDs, opioids, and miscellaneous medications. Common NSAIDs include carprofen (Rimadyl), deracoxib (Deramaxx), firocoxib (Previcox), grapiprant (Galliprant), and in cats robenacoxib (Onsior). Middle aged to older animals should have a blood chemistry completed prior to receiving these medications to ensure their kidneys and liver do not have pre-existing damage that may be exacerbated. If they will be receiving these medications long-term, periodic recheck blood chemistries are indicated. Multiple NSAIDs or NSAIDs and steroids should never be administered together due to the risk of stomach ulcers and kidney damage.

Opioids are less commonly sent home, typically being reserved for use in hospitalized patients. However, due to the limited options available to cats and their unique physiology, a short course of buprenorphine (Buprenex) is sometimes sent home. This is a strong analgesic that can cause sedation, euphoria, excitability, and sometimes hunger. Miscellaneous analgesics, such as tramadol and gabapentin, can be used alone for mild pain or as an adjunct to an NSAID and/or opioid for more profound pain. These medications may cause sedation and can be useful for pet anxiety relief.

Can my pet get addicted to pain medications?

Theoretically yes, realistically no. While dogs and cats share the same dopamine reward pathways as humans, they do not control when or how much of a particular medication they receive. Short courses of opioids and miscellaneous analgesics can be stopped abruptly once no longer needed, but animals that that have been receiving these medications for weeks or months may need to be tapered off. NSAIDs have no addiction potential and therefore do not require tapering, even with long-term use.

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