Natural Pain Relief Vs. Meds for Dogs

If our dogs could talk, one of the first things we’d want to know as owners is if they are happy and comfortable; if all the things we are doing for dog pain relief and nutrition are actually working; if we’ve done our part to make the quality of our pets’ lives the best it can be. Unfortunately, without that level of communication, we are often left wondering if all is really okay with our furry companions, especially since they don’t communicate their pain the same way people do.

Why Dog Pain Relief is Important

In 2019, the International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) redefined “pain” as: “An aversive sensory and emotional experience typically caused by, or resembling that caused by, actual or potential tissue injury.” The ISAP noted that pain is always subjective, but the inability to communicate verbally did not mean pain wasn’t being experienced or that pain relief wasn’t needed.

Nowhere is this observation more important than in the veterinary community, where every patient is non-verbal, and some hide symptoms of discomfort so cleverly a casual eye might think all was well.

For owners, this barrier means being extra aware of other symptoms in your pet that indicate a need for dog pain relief. The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) notes dogs exhibit pain in a number of ways, including:

  • Increased vocalizations (howling, barking, growling, grunting, groaning)
  • Changes in activity level (restlessness, reluctance to move, difficulty getting up/down)
  • Protectiveness (favoring a paw, limb, or other body part)
  • Decreased appetite
  • Incontinence
  • Excessive/Lack of sleeping
  • Self mutilation (chewing, licking, scratching)
  • Changes in grooming habits
  • Changes in coat appearance
  • Hunched posture/ abnormal body positioning
  • Excessive panting
  • Changes in facial expressions
  • Abnormal aggression
  • Sensitivity to touch

Paying attention to these possible changes will be your first hint that maybe you need to speak with someone about dog pain relief options. 

Common Dog Pain Relief Medications

At the first signs of discomfort, many owners opt to take their dogs to the veterinary office, and this is always a smart first decision. No matter which dog pain relief option you select down the road, a full examination is vital to make sure you know what type of pain you are dealing with and to ensure there are no contraindications. Some types of diseases will require other medications, and you want to make sure nothing you decide to give for dog pain relief negatively interacts with something your pet may already be on, or an underlying condition your dog might be experiencing. It's always important to ask questions, and know what you are giving your dog.

At the clinic, your friendly veterinarian is most like to prescribe one of the following pain meds for dogs based on the level of relief your pet needs.

NSAIDs (Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs): Not the name for an individual medication, but a class of medications, NSAIDs are one of the most commonly prescribed medications for dog pain relief in the clinical setting. These drugs act as anti-inflammatory and fever-reducing agents in the body, blocking certain enzymes associated with the pain responses in the body. Common side-effects include vomiting and diarrhea, loss of appetite, and loss of energy. Over time, extensive use of NSAIDs may negatively impact the kidney and liver, and any dogs on these medications long-term should have regular blood work. Common brands include Rimadyl, Deramaxx, and Previcox.

Tramadol: Like many medications in the animal world, tramadol was first used in human medicine. It is a synthetic opioid and a controlled substance and is predominantly used in combination with NSAIDs. Unlike NSAIDs, tramadol works by inhibiting the uptake of feel-good hormones in the brain, keeping them in the blood stream to create a euphoric effect that negates many pain responses. The most common side effects of this medication are vomiting, diarrhea, drowsiness, tremors, constipation, nausea, dizziness, and lack of appetite. 

Gabapentin: Gabapentin is an “off-label” medication for dog pain relief, meaning it is a human drug not yet approved for use in the veterinary world. Despite its pending status, it is commonly prescribed out of human pharmacies to act as a false form of GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter, blocking specific pain responses in the body. It is considered widely effective when used with NSAIDs, and is often used to treat anxiety as well as pain. Common side effects include diarrhea, mild sedation, and nervous system decline (ataxia), as well was withdrawal seizures.

Amantadine: Like many of the above medication, this one is found in the world of dog pain relief as a partner drug typically used in combination with NSAIDs. Amantadine makes it possible for central nervous system receptors to be reset, allowing other pain relief medications to work more effectively. Common side effects include irritation, flatulence, and diarrhea. 

Other Medications for Dog Pain Relief: There may also be instances where your veterinarian recommends milder, over the counter medications for your dog’s pain like baby aspirin. Never give these medications without the advice of a veterinarian. Just because you can take a medication at home doesn’t mean your pet can. Ibuprofen, for example, can lead to irreparable kidney damage

Natural Dog Pain Relief

If you’re worried about prescription medications and your pet, you have good reason. The vast majority have some concerning side effects, and almost all of them can cause gastrointestinal upset on some level. These issues, combined with the recent movement in the human world toward alternative options, makes pet owners gravitate toward natural pain relief for dogs. Thankfully, many of the complementary practices that work for people have moved into the veterinary world, expanding the options for pets in need.

Lifestyle changes: Not all dog pain relief options have to be grand or expensive. Some, like those surrounding weight loss to decrease stress on the joints and aid in diabetic management, are as simple as lifestyle changes. More frequent exercise, smaller food portions, and the elimination of table scraps can go a long way in improving a dog’s pain levels. What’s more, some dogs may benefit from environmental changes like therapeutic beds, higher food bowls, and modified stair access, depending on their individual issues.

Nutrition: There is a growing body of research on the human side on the important role gut health and diet plays in overall wellbeing, and the same can be said for animal health. Research suggests providing dogs with a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids can help reduce inflammation, particularly for dogs suffering from arthritis. In addition to dietary management, the addition of certain supplements, such as glucosamine, may be beneficial in providing dog pain relief on a consistent basis.

Acupuncture: Of all the alternative therapies for dog pain relief, acupuncture has the largest body of research behind in, both on the human and animal side. It is one of the most common alternatives to traditional pain medications when it comes to addressing major pain, like that from surgery. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) indicates acupuncture is a recognized way of providing dog pain relief, and works through the stimulation of points on the body corresponding to neurovascular bundles, site of nerve branching, and blood plexuses, among other things. By stimulating these areas, endorphins and neurotransmitters are released to mitigate pain responses in the body. 

Massage therapy: Canine massage has been emerging over the last several decades as a reliable means of providing dog pain relief. Owners are able to aid their dogs at home through the gentle manipulation of soft tissue, or are able to seek professional treatment, for certain medical conditions. A number of studies link post-surgical massage to a significant reduction in pain, and many clinicians promote the use of canine massage to manage the pain related to arthritis and other musculoskeletal conditions. 

CBD for Pets: Another new and emerging treatment for dog pain relief is the use of CBD (cannabidiol) in various oral forms, most commonly in oils and treats. Not to be confused with pure cannabis, CBD is a non-psychoactive substance derived from the hemp or marijuana plant, with no THC. Although it is by no means a cure, or have proven claims, It has shown great promise in dog pain relief for arthritis, as receptors for cannabinoids are present throughout joints. 

Medications or Natural Therapy for Dog Pain Relief?

At the end of the day, the level of pain management your dog needs depends on your dog, and always best to consult your veterinarian. If you are able to start with alternative, natural methods and find a satisfactory level of pain management, everyone is the better for it. Some dogs, however, may have such severe pain issues that their best options are a mixture of both natural and pharmaceutical solutions, and as a responsible owner, you will have to have the right conversations with your veterinarian and weigh all the pros and cons that go along with these decisions. Remember to focus on quality of life when it comes to dog pain relief. If you are trading some mild arthritis signs for massive stomach upset and lethargy due to medications, maybe that isn’t in your dog’s best interests after all

Written by Mead Johnston

Mead is an experienced dog trainer, writer, and lover of animals. She has always been surrounded by animals and had a passion for learning more about them every day. This passion grew tremendously when Mead brought home a Great Pyrenees x Golden Retriever named Mac in 2018. Mead has continued to learn more about dogs whenever possible and wherever possible, while also helping so many wonderful clients. Her goal is help her clients and their dogs become confident in their daily lives. As a dog trainer, she often helps clients who are starting off with a puppy or they might have an older dog that is presenting challenging behaviours. Mead believes in the all-natural uses of Pet CBD to help our furry loved ones live longer, happier and healthier lives.

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