It's heartbreaking to see your dog in obvious pain and not being able to help him or her feel better. It's tempting to reach into your medicine cabinet and pull out whatever pain reliever is close at hand to relieve their whimpering and wincing. Most of the time, that would be aspirin or some other common over-the-counter painkiller.
But is aspirin safe for dogs? The answer is no. While aspirin can be prescribed to dogs, and often is, it's not safe to simply give your dog the same pills that you and your family members take for headaches, muscle soreness, and other minor aches and pains. That medication is made for humans, not for our canine companions.
Let's dive deeper into how aspirin and other common pain medications work, what kind of danger they present to dogs, and how you can give your pet some pain relief if they're suffering.
Dr. Ernie Ward on the dangers of giving your dog aspirin
The Different Types of Aspirin
Over-the-counter pain medicines fall into two camps: NSAIDs, or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and acetaminophen. They can both be very dangerous for your dog.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, are very common. Aspirin is an NSAID, and so are ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, and others) and naproxen (Aleve). Most likely, you have one or more varieties of an NSAID in your medicine cabinet right now.
NSAIDs work by inhibiting cyclooxygenase enzymes, also known as COX enzymes. COX enzymes produce prostaglandins, lipids that create inflammation and pain as a response to stimuli such as an injury or fever. When COX enzymes, and therefore the inflammation-causing prostaglandins that they produce, are inhibited by the NSAID, the person or pet who took the medication feels less pain.
Aside from NSAIDs, there is one another common type of over-the-counter pain medication out there: Acetaminophen, known more commonly by its brand name of Tylenol. Acetaminophen comes in pill form and is also often included in cold and flu medicines.
Surprisingly, it's not known for certain how or why acetaminophen works to relieve pain. It doesn't help reduce inflammation the way NSAIDs do, but it helps minimize pain and fever nonetheless.
Whether the painkiller is an NSAID or acetaminophen, it's not safe to give to your dog. Let's take a closer look at why these medications are so dangerous for our furry friends.
The Dangers of Aspirin for Dogs
Although aspirin and other NSAIDs, as well as acetaminophen, can all be prescribed to dogs to help relieve pain and inflammation, they come with risks. The danger lies in the side effects that the medications can cause.
Generally speaking, dogs are harmed by aspirin and other painkillers in one of three ways:
- A pet parent gives their dog aspirin designed for human use in an attempt to relieve pain, and the dosage is far too high.
- A dog gets into a bottle of aspirin pills or a cold-and-flu medicine and ingests the medication without the dog parent's knowledge.
- A dog is prescribed aspirin by a veterinarian, but is especially sensitive to NSAIDs and experiences adverse effects even though the dosage is correct.
It's also worth noting that using other medications at the same time as NSAIDs, like corticosteroids, can make NSAID use more risky for dogs. A dog suffering from certain conditions like kidney disease or gastrointestinal problems is also likely at a higher risk for serious side effects from NSAIDs.
What Aspirin Does to Your Dog's Body
So, what exactly does aspirin do to your dog's body that makes it so dangerous?
The answer lies in the prostaglandins. It turns out that they do more for your dog's body than promote pain and inflammation. Prostaglandins are important for other functions, like maintaining the layer of mucus that lines the gastrointestinal tract so that stomach acid doesn't eat away at the tract, making sure blood clots normally, and maintaining adequate blood flow to the kidneys.
When prostaglandin production is inhibited too much, those functions start to fail. That's what leads to the dangerous side effects associated with NSAID poisoning.
Side Effects of Aspirin for DogsThe side effects of aspirin for dogs include:
- Loss of appetite
- Diarrhea (possibly bloody) or black, tarry stools
- Bleeding disorders
- Stomach ulcers
- Kidney damage or kidney failure
- Liver damage or liver failure
If a dog suffering from aspirin poisoning isn't treated in time, it's possible for the issue to prove fatal.
Acetaminophen poisoning, like NSAID poisoning, damages your dog's liver and kidneys. It also causes hemoglobin in the blood, which carries oxygen to all cells in the body, to convert to methemoglobin, resulting in poor oxygen delivery and possible tissue damage. Symptoms of acetaminophen poisoning include respiratory difficulties, swelling in the face, neck, or limbs, vomiting, and jaundice.
Giving Your Dog Aspirin Safely
We've seen how aspirin and NSAIDs in general, as well as acetaminophen, can be very dangerous for our furry friends. Still, aspirin can be administered to dogs for effective pain relief, as long as it’s done under the close supervision and guidance of your veterinarian.
Aspirin Prescribed by Your Veterinarian
Most often, aspirin will be prescribed for short-term pain relief for your dog. It's unlikely that your vet will prescribe aspirin for a long time period or to manage chronic pain, since the long-term effects can be serious.
Your veterinarian will tell you about the proper dosage needed to help lessen your dog's pain and give you the exact amount of pills that you'll need. In some cases, you'll be instructed to purchase baby aspirin, also known as low-dose aspirin. It's still an NSAID and still poses risks, but can be given for short periods under the close supervision of a veterinarian.
Alternatives to Aspirin
Most of the time, your dog will be prescribed a painkiller made specifically for pets. This is a much safer option than aspirin or other pain medications designed for human use. Examples include carprofen, meloxicam, deracoxib, firocoxib, and etodolac.
These medications are still NSAIDs, but they've been designed with pets in mind — that means they're much safer. Still, it's important that you monitor your dog's health closely if they're taking one of these medications, and let your vet know right away if you notice anything out of the ordinary.
Of course, there are other pain management methods for dogs that don't involve medication at all. Depending on what's causing your dog's pain, alternative methods might be useful, such as:
- Dietary modification
- Dietary supplementation with omega–3 fatty acids or other supplements
- Regular exercise
- Physical therapy
- Cold-laser therapy
If your dog suffers from chronic pain, ask your vet if these alternative pain management techniques could benefit your pup.
Can I Give My Dog Aspirin? What to Keep in Mind
It can be a little tricky understanding whether or not aspirin is safe for your dog. Even though human aspirin is sometimes prescribed for dogs, and dogs can be given NSAIDs designed specifically for pets, these drugs come with risks.
At the end of the day, the rule of thumb to follow is simple: Never give your dog aspirin, other NSAIDs, acetaminophen, or medication of any kind unless directed to do so by your veterinarian. When aspirin is given under the guidance of a veterinarian and given in the proper dosage, it's safe. Anything else is putting your dog at unnecessary risk.