If you develop a fever or twist your ankle on a run, you don’t think twice about breaking out an over-the-counter medication and treating yourself. You don’t even call the doctor—you don’t have to because the dose is right there on the bottle.
But what can you give dogs and cats for pain? I’ve recently taken on some shifts at an emergency clinic, and without fail, every shift involves a concerned owner asking what they can give their pets for pain, so I know it’s a common question.
The answer is simple: nothing. No human over-the-counter medication is 100% safe for your pet. Our pets are not simply “small humans,” and we can’t just adjust the dose of medications for their smaller size. Pets, especially cats, can’t metabolize medications the way humans can, and giving over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) or acetaminophen can end with a pretty terrible result.
The tolerance of NSAIDs like ibuprofen, naproxen and aspirin varies between species, and most of them have very narrow margins of safety. While some medications can be used safely in specific doses in dogs, the same medication will easily kill a cat. I don’t have to tell you the heartache that comes from watching a cat die because his owner administered Tylenol®. It’s unbelievably sad, and it happens more than you’d think.
There was a time earlier in my veterinary career that I’d give the dosage for aspirin to an inquiring pet owner. After all, if an animal is in pain and can’t come into the clinic, isn’t it my duty to make sure they’re looked after? Then I learned at a continuing education meeting that virtually 100% of dogs given aspirin develop microscopic ulcerations in their stomachs. There is truly no over-the-counter pain medication that I can recommend to owners and still feel like I’m doing the right thing.
It’s not that NSAIDs are dangerous for pets. In fact, there are several veterinary NSAIDs that do work safely in pets, but when owners try to extrapolate this to medications meant for humans, they are courting disaster. That’s because in addition to killing pain, NSAIDs can also negatively affect blood flow to the kidneys, cause blood clotting issues and decrease the production of protective mucus that lines the gastrointestinal tract.
In addition, pets who have compromised liver or kidney function and those who are on other concurrent medications could be at more risk for developing negative side effects from NSAIDs.
Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is another story altogether. Acetaminophen is not an NSAID. In truth, scientists don’t really know how it works to reduce pain and fever, but it’s still dangerous to pets. There is no safe dose for cats—just one tablet can cause death, and while acetaminophen can be used in dogs, if given in toxic doses, it quickly causes liver damage and renders red blood cells all but useless in delivering vital oxygen to the body.
If your pet is in pain or has a fever, the very best thing you can do is talk to your own veterinarian about it. There are plenty of safe prescription medications (both veterinary and human) that can treat pain in pets, and there is a chance that you could have some of them in your home already. But without your veterinarian’s consent based on her full knowledge of your pet’s health, you could end up in the emergency clinic with a very, very sick pet. And that’s a bitter pill to swallow.