No pain, all gain: Pain relief for dogs

There’s nothing worse than seeing someone you love in pain… especially when that someone can’t express in words what they’re feeling and how long they’ve been feeling that way.

No matter the source, pain relief for dogs is a primary concern for most—if not all—pet parents. One of the most common questions we hear from pet parents is:

“What can I give my dog for pain?”

Before we talk about treatment (including the appropriateness of Tylenol for dogs), let’s take a step back and cover the basics: types of pain, signs of pain, and why your veterinarian is an essential partner for pain relief for dogs.

Types of pain in dogs

Animals suffer from pain just like people do. Like us, dogs can experience different kinds of pain and at different levels of intensity. The pains associated with an ear infection are different to those from an arthritis flare-up (to name a few).

Broadly speaking, pain falls under two categories: acute pain and chronic pain.

Acute pain is sudden and often unexpected. For example, you and your dog might be enjoying a routine game of fetch in the backyard when they tweak their knee chasing after their favourite ball. Chronic pain, on the other hand, often presents slowly and more subtly than acute pain. This type of pain is often misattributed as “normal” signs of getting older or slowing down. Mixups like these can compromise pain relief for dogs because the assumption is that there’s nothing that can be done to help.

It’s important that pet parents know the signs of a dog in pain so the appropriate steps can be taken to provide pain relief.

Signs of pain in dogs

Because the signs can be sneaky, nothing is ever off the table. The most universal sign of pain is a change in behaviour. Because you know your dog best, you’ll be most attuned to when they’re acting in ways that seem out of character.

Remember: habits are behaviours. If you get up every morning and immediately fix yourself a pot of coffee, that’s a behaviour-defining habit. The same is true for dogs. If your dog is known for a tail-wagging greeting at the door every time you come home and suddenly they start staying in bed instead of showing up to say hi, that’s a behavioural change deserving of your attention.

Dog with paw up, limping from pain

Common signs of pain in dogs include:

  • Decreased activity (not wanting to walk as long or play as much as usual)
  • Tentative with stairs (hesitant to walk up or down, exercising caution when ascending/descending)
  • Reluctant to jump (unwilling to hop into the car or onto the bed)
  • Difficulty standing after laying down (including stiffness when moving after a nap)
  • Decreased appetite
  • Overgrooming or compulsively licking a particular body part

It goes without saying that we don’t want our dogs feeling like this. The next step to pain relief for dogs, then, is understanding the consequences of pain.

Consequences and impact of canine pain

Pain is complicated. It can put tremendous stress on the body and impact every organ system. That’s the thing about pain: we don’t see it—we see its impacts.

Take the heart, for example. If a dog is in physical pain, their heart rate (along with their blood pressure) will increase. High blood pressure—also known as hypertension—can lead to plenty of adverse effects such as brain, heart, kidney and ocular damage.

When a dog is having a hard time sleeping or eating, this affects not only physical health, but overall quality of life, too.

What happens when you try to wish the pain away? Untreated pain causes more pain. Left unchecked, pain receptors in the canine body start to overreact and amplify pain signals. This is what’s known as peripheral or central sensitization.

Let’s talk evolution for a second: somewhere along the way, dogs learned to hide pain because they lived in a prey-predator world. Any sign of weakness, sickness, or pain made them vulnerable to predators, so concealing those signs functioned as a survival mechanism. To this day, that survival mechanism remains and it’s up to us as pet parents to identify when there’s an issue and respond with their best interests at heart.

Pain relief for dogs: Visiting the vet

Veterinarians see more ear infection cases than almost anything else. Why? Yes, they’re a common phenomenon, (they were the number one reason for canine pet claims at one pet insurance company) but also the visible indicators of an ear infection (frequent head shakes or tilts, foul-smelling ears, etc.) are easy for pet parents to pick up on. Hidden pains (like the pains associated with osteoarthritis, for example) require a trained eye. Osteoarthritis (also known as degenerative joint disease) affects approximately 60% of dogs, but researchers found that only 3.6% of pet parents consulted a veterinarian with arthritis-related concerns because the clinical signs are subtle and therefore easy to miss or mistake for something else.

In case you were wondering, the signs of osteoarthritis generally include things like:

  • Limping or lameness after exertion
  • Swollen and thickened joint(s) compared to other limbs
  • Increased irritability around other pets and people
  • Seeming uncomfortable or out of sorts with no clear indication as to why
  • Unmotivated to play and less social with family

Osteoarthritis or otherwise, if you think your dog is exhibiting a change in behaviour that may be pain-related, the best thing to do is call your family veterinarian. All vets are extensively trained on pain identification and management which means they have the skills and tools to make navigating canine pain a pain-free experience.

What to give a dog for pain relief

Pain relief and pain medications for dogs can come in many forms from your veterinarian:

EXPERT TIP: Every day thousands of curious pet parents key questions like “Is Tylenol safe for dogs?” and “Is Advil safe for dogs?” into Google. We’re here to set the record straight: neither acetaminophen (e.g., Tylenol) nor ibuprofen (e.g., Advil) should be administered without first consulting a veterinarian. Both types of drugs can be dog-friendly, but an incorrect dosing can cause major toxicities and poisonings.
  • Oral pain medications (anti-inflammatories, opioids, etc.)
  • Topical pain meds for dogs (ointments and patches)
  • Injectable pain meds for dogs
  • Acupuncture
  • Physiotherapy
  • Shockwave or laser therapy
  • Therapeutic supplements

Oftentimes vets will recommend a combination of the above to try to achieve multimodal analgesia (AKA more effective pain relief). The pain receptors and pathways of different tissues and body parts will have different responses to treatments and medications. When it comes to pain management for dogs, the goal is to act on the right pathways at the right points. Doing this can translate to lower required dosages, decreased frequency of use, fewer side effects and, most importantly, a better quality of life through more targeted and effective pain management.

BONUS TIP: Treat your dog as you would your child and keep medications and other toxic substances out of reach. You’d be surprised how nosy a curious dog can be!

Our dog subscription boxes are designed to adapt to your dog’s changing medical, health, and lifestyle needs. Allergies? Arthritis? No problem. We purposefully pack each box with products and information designed to prevent pain and promote wellness.

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