Pain Killers in Dogs - are they safe?

Have you done your research?  What have you found?  Rimadyl is deadly?  Pain killers will make your dog sick?  A quick look online is full of horror stories but surely your vet wouldn't give your dog something so dangerous?  Of course not!


It makes me so frustrated and sad for their dog when I hear that people are too scared of the side-effects they have heard about on the internet to even consider using a drug class that is proven to offer the best chance of a pain free recovery from surgery or the opportunity of an excellent quality of life, free from the debilitating influence of chronic pain.

The most common pain killer used in veterinary medicine is the class of drugs known as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).  There are many different drugs in this class that are sold under many different names.  Check out my other article if you want to learn more about these drugs but today I want to address safety.

Will they kill your dog?

The short answer is no.

What are the risks?

The slightly longer answer is that all drugs (at least those which actually do anything) have side-effects.  Somewhere between 3% and 9% of dogs are reported to experience side-effects with NSAIDs.   In the massive majority these are limited to vomiting or diarrhea which goes away when the drug is stopped.  An absolutely tiny proportion will experience liver or kidney issues and yes, a few of these (an even smaller proportion) will prove fatal.

To put this into perspective, at least with long term use, the majority of patients prescribed these drugs are elderly and so the chances of a few of them suffering from an underlying liver or kidney condition or having undetected cancer is pretty high.  It may be that some of these patients were going to die from these diseases regardless of treatment started with others sadly being pushed over the edge by their drug treatment.  This is obviously tragic for the individual involved but it is so important any horror stories are given perspective.

To give a human example did you know that there are estimated to be about 16,500 deaths a year in the US due to aspirin with a further 100,000 people needing hospitalization.  In the UK the annual death toll is estimated at around 3,000.  Is this fact going to stop you taking aspirin when you need it?  Thought not.

16,500 deaths a year in the US due to aspirin.  What are the risks of pain killers in dogs

A pain free life

The flip side is that NSAIDs offer our dogs the best chance of a pain free life.  Be that during the recovery from surgery, getting over a ligament or muscular injury, or living with arthritis long term.  In denying your dog the option of these drugs, when they are felt by your vet to be appropriate, it is very likely that your dog will be suffering from pain unnecessarily.

Yes there are alternative pain killers but none of them are proven to work as well in dogs.  Pain has many detrimental effects, it has a massive impact on a dogs recovery and quality of life and should not be ignored.

Reducing the side-effects

Of course we don't want to use any drug irresponsibly and there are a number of actions we can take to minimize the risk of any side-effects:

  • Blood testing

In older patients, or any patient that is likely to be taking the drug on a long term basis, a pre-treatment blood sample should be taken with follow up monitoring bloods run as advised by your vet.  This will help pick up those individuals where there a concerns regarding liver or kidney function.  If this is the case then it may be that an alternative treatment plan is made or that your pet is monitored more closely to be sure they don't deteriorate.

  • Stop if vomiting or diarrhea develops

Any dog that experiences vomiting or diarrhea should not continue to take the drug or risk the development of stomach ulcers.  A few days off treatment will most likely result in recovery although your vet may want to give them some treatment to aid this recovery.  It may be that your dog will be fine if they start the drug again, after all vomiting and diarrhea is very common in otherwise healthy dogs who are not on any other treatment.   Another option is to switch to a different non steroidal anti-inflammatory as it has been shown that it is very unlikely for an individual to react to 2 different drugs.  For those seriously affected or known to have very sensitive intestines it may be that alternative treatments are then explored.

  • Stop if your pet appears depressed, becomes unwell or stops eating or drinking

If your dog is unwell for any other reason, if they stop eating or drinking then do not continue to give a NSAID.  The reason for this is that if a dog becomes dehydrated, their organs may be under strain.  An anti-inflammatory is then more likely to cause damage, especially to their kidneys.

  • Do not give a higher dose than your vet has prescribed

  • Do not give at the same time as steroids or any other NSAID

  • Don't use human pain killers unless specifically advised to by your vet.

  • Do contact your vet promptly if you have any concerns

  • Use other management and treatment strategies for arthritis and other chronic pain conditions to reduce the dose of NSAIDs needed to keep your pet pain free.

  • Do follow post-operative instructions fully to minimize pain and inflammation to allow a short course or a lower dose of medication to be used.

If we follow these recommendations we can ensure our dogs are highly unlikely to experience any significant side effects while at the same time being as pain free as possible.

Don't be the owner who condemns their pet to suffer in silence when there is another way.  Be sensible, yes.  Don't use any drugs inappropriately, of course.  But at the same time don't believe everything you read online is the whole story.  You owe that to your dog.

Check out my other article if you want to know how these pain killers work and more.  I also have an entire article about integrating these drugs with holistic arthritis management.

While I expect anyone who's dog may have had side-effects to comment (and no, this article has not been sponsored by anyone), please let my know below how pain killers have helped your dog live a healthier, happier life.  I would love to hear from you.  Also, if it's your first time here, sign up to our newsletter to make sure you don't miss out on future content and allow me to continue to help you and your dog.

Our Pets Health: because they're family