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Anytime you can relieve your pet’s pain, it’s a big relief for you, too. Thankfully, veterinary medicine offers more ways to do that than ever before. In fact, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, are the most common pain medications prescribed for pets today.
When used for surgical procedures, NSAIDs can help reduce the risk of complications from pain and inflammation, so pets can recover faster. And when prescribed for chronic conditions, such as arthritis, these medications can often help dogs return to activities they love, from fetching balls and daily strolls to jumping on the couch to snuggle.
But as with any medication, NSAIDs may have side effects, some of which can be serious. It’s important for you to work with your veterinarian and weigh the risks and benefits of giving your pet these medications. The more you know about potential side effects and how to monitor your pet, the better prepared you’ll be to make informed decisions about your pet’s health.
Let’s say your pet experiences an injury. When that happens, enzymes in his body stimulate damaged cells to release chemicals. The chemicals, in turn, cause the area around the injury to become inflamed, as evidenced by swelling, redness, warmth and pain. NSAIDs work to block those enzymes before they can trigger inflammation and pain.
Common NSAIDs veterinarians prescribe for dogs include carprofen, deracoxib, firocoxib, meloxicam and robenacoxib.
Because cats can’t metabolize NSAIDs as easily as dogs, they tend to be more sensitive to their effects. That’s why there are fewer of these medications available for cats, and they are generally only prescribed for short-term use. Robenacoxib and meloxicam are examples of NSAIDs used in cats. Although these same drugs are used in dogs, dosing recommendations are different for cats. So you should never give your dog's NSAID medication to a cat.
The NSAIDs labeled for use in pets have been approved by the FDA and shown to be safe and effective when used according to their labels. As the most widely used pain relievers in pets, NSAIDs have helped many pets overcome pain and revel in a better quality of life.
However, there can be side effects. The most common include vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite and lethargy. In a small percentage of pets, the side effects can be serious, such as gastrointestinal ulcers, liver and/or kidney damage and death. NSAIDs can also increase the risk of bleeding during surgical procedures.
To help keep your pets safe, here are some common sense strategies for NSAID use.
1. Never give your pet an NSAID without consulting your veterinarian. It may be tempting to assume that human over-the-counter pain relievers, such as aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen and acetaminophen, may be relatively harmless for pets. But that’s just NOT the case. If given inappropriately, these medications can cause severe and even life-threatening effects to both cats and dogs.
2. Your veterinarian may recommend a full physical exam and appropriate lab tests before starting NSAIDs. This is especially important if your pet has other health conditions or if he’ll need the medication long-term for a chronic condition, such as arthritis.
The blood and urine tests can help your veterinarian determine if your pet has underlying kidney, liver, gastrointestinal or heart diseases, which could increase the potential risk of using NSAIDs. Depending on your pet’s condition, your veterinarian may recommend the cautious use of these medications with frequent monitoring, or she may opt for a different type of pain medication instead.
These tests also serve as a baseline, so your veterinarian can monitor changes in your pet’s test results over time to help catch a potential side effect before it becomes serious.
3. Tell your veterinarian about all of your pet’s current and recent medications. That includes any prescriptions from other veterinarians, as well as vitamins, herbal supplements and over-the-counter drugs. NSAIDs should never be used with steroids or other NSAIDs, and the use of NSAIDs may impact the effectiveness of other drugs your pet is currently using, such as heart or seizure medications.
4. Use the medications only as prescribed by your veterinarian. Never increase the dose, frequency or length of time your pet receives NSAIDs without consulting your veterinarian first. If the medication is to be given with food, make sure your pet has eaten before administering it.
5. Keep your pet well hydrated. Make sure your pet has access to fresh water at all times. When your pet is well hydrated, your finger should slide easily over his gums. If his gums feel dry and sticky, he may be dehydrated, so you should call your veterinarian.
6. Watch for side effects. These include loss of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, bloody or black stools, changes in drinking or urination, lethargy or a yellow tinge to the gums, skin or the whites of your pet’s eyes. If you notice any of these signs, discontinue the medication and contact your veterinarian.
7. Never give NSAIDs to other pets, especially cats. As mentioned, cats are more sensitive to the effects of NSAIDs, and other dogs in the household may have underlying medical issues that may be exacerbated by these medications.
8. Keep NSAIDs safely out of the reach of your pets. Many of these pills are meat flavored, and counter-surfing pets have been known to eat the entire contents of a bottle, which can be toxic.
9. If your pet takes NSAIDs long-term, schedule regular recheck testing. Regular lab work can help your veterinarian detect potential side effects before they may become apparent.
In certain chronic conditions, such as arthritis, overweight pets may experience pain relief from weight loss, exercise and other treatments. In these cases, it may be possible to reduce your pet’s NSAID dose over time. With regular rechecks, your veterinarian can monitor your pet’s weight and provide dosing guidance.
10. Monitor your pet’s pain. Since the goal of NSAID use is to help relieve pain, watch to see if your pet’s signs improve. If they do improve, that means the medication is working, so don’t discontinue it without talking to your veterinarian, especially if your pet is being treated for chronic pain. If your pet still appears to be in pain, contact your veterinarian. It may be necessary to re-evaluate your pet’s condition or explore additional pain medications.
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