Can You Give Tramadol for Dog Pain (does it really work)?

Tramadol is a pain killer that is sometimes used in dogs.  It might be used for short term pain relief after surgery or is could be used long term to treat something like arthritis.  So while you can give tramadol for dog pain, does it actually work and is tramadol safe for dogs?

 
 

Let me know your experiences with tramadol in the comments below

How does tramadol work?

Tramadol is an opioid pain killer commonly used in humans that is also often given "off-licence" to our pets.  In people is can be a very effective pain killer but as we know from other drugs, the effects in one species doesn't always mean the same is true in other species.  Classic opioids such as morphine and methadone work very well in dogs so why would tramadol be any different?

Well, tramadol needs to be broken down in the body into different chemicals and it is these metabolites that are actually responsible for the analgesic, pain killing action of tramadol.  It is a specific chemical, known as the M1 metabolite, that works on the opioid pain killing receptors in the body which then results in the pain killing effect seen.

The problem is that it seems dogs produce very little of this M1 metabolite.  Compounding this, it only lasts in the body for a very short time.

 
 Tramadol in people is can be a very effective pain killer but as we know from other drugs, the effects in one species doesn't always mean the same is true in other species
 

The side effects of tramadol in dogs

Tramadol does have other affects on the body.  It increases the levels of serotonin and norepinephrin in the body which can have the effect of sedation or intestinal upset.  Serotonin is also commonly known as the feel good or happy chemical and so it is possible that this helps our pets feel "happier" in themselves.  The other side effects we rarely see include agitation, anxiety, tremors, dizziness as well as inappetence and constipation.  Generally though side effects are rare and minor.

So the big question is "does tramadol work to reduce the pain my pet is in?".

Does tramadol kill dog pain?

For some time now, the use of tramadol has had its champions and those who questioned how much good it actually does.  Personally speaking, I have found that some dogs really seem to improve well and become more comfortable after taking tramadol.  Other patients though did not seem to get much benefit at all.  More often than not I would also use tramadol as an addition to a pain killing strategy, using it at the same time as another pain killing medication.

The key with any pet in pain is to continually reassess their comfort levels so if something doesn't seem to be working changes can be made.

 
 
 

So why might tramadol not work?  Well, as I've already mentioned dogs break down tramadol differently to people.  Tramadol itself doesn't have pain killing activity, instead it is a certain breakdown chemical that reduces pain.  Dogs produce very little of this chemical and it sticks around in the body for only a very short time.  As a result, it is theoretically questionable as to how much good tramadol actually does.

What's the evidence?

A great recent study looked at this very question in lame, arthritic dogs.  It compared how much force was being put through each dogs legs after being given a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (which you can learn more about here), tramadol or a placebo.  When you have a painful leg you try and put less weight and less force through it.

What it found was that there was a great improvement in leg use with those dogs given the NSAID but there was no improvement and no difference with both the tramadol and the placebo.

So if this is the case for every dog, why might we see an improvement in some dogs given tramadol?  It could be due to two things?  The first is that the other effects of tramadol on increasing serotonin may cause some sedation and may improve feelings of happiness and so our pets look better even when they are in the same amount of pain.

The other possible cause is the placebo effect.  This is definitely an issue with both owners and veterinarians.  We are all really invested in the health and well being of our dogs and cats.  We want the treatment that we give them to work and so this can mean we see improvement even when it is not actually present.  I've a separate video discussing this topic coming up in a few weeks so make sure you look out for that.

The bottom line

For me, my nagging doubts about how well tramadol actually works as well as the fact that there are alternatives have meant that it is not a drug I really reach for in my patients anymore.

If you want to learn about some alternative medications as well as other strategies to help keep your painful pet comfortable then I have a whole playlist on this topic.  Keeping our pets as comfortable and pain free as possible is something that I feel very strongly about.

I hope this article helps your pet be as pain free as possible.  Make sure you check out my other articles on pet pain killers to help keep your pet as comfortable as possible.  Its also important not to ignore all of the other non-drug pain killing strategies that can also make a huge difference.

 If you have any questions then please let me know in the comments below and remember to sign up to my newsletter for your free pain monitoring chart.

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