NSAID Drugs in Dogs – Know the Benefits and Risks

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Understanding the Benefits and Risks of NSAID Drugs in Dogs

Some drugs commonly given dogs have serious side effects. One group of drugs called non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID for short) is one of those drugs.

Last week a new client complained that her last veterinarian had been “drug-happy”-in fact, she’d “divorced” him over the issue. As prime example of his pill-popping profligacy, she explained that he’d insisted on putting both her dogs on a popular NSAID.

In case you’re not familiar with them, NSAIDs comprise the most popular class of drugs prescribed for pain in both humans and dogs. You probably know two of the most common NSAIDs, aspirin and ibuprofen, and might even know others. But the human versions of these drugs aren’t always safe for use in dogs at doses sufficient for relieving pain. That’s why veterinary science worked to develop several canine versions almost two decades ago.

Since then, these drugs have been the recipient of accolades and acrimony alike. It seems like nothing good can come without something bad…especially nothing new. Canine NSAIDs, as relative newcomers, have received an outsized share of criticism relative to older, stronger, and even more side effect-ridden drugs.

Well, that explains why my new client’s last vet was getting flak for being so fast and loose with these meds. It also explains why there’s so much scary information on the Web about drugs like Rimadyl® (carprofen), Metacam® (meloxicam), piroxicam, Deramaxx®, and Etogesic® (etodolac), among many others.

Now, I understand where these owners are coming from. Really, I do. Safely prescribing medication requires a careful hand. But here’s the thing: All medications have side effects, just like all pain relievers have side effects. So why should NSAIDs get any special attention?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying these drugs are 100% safe. But they are too crucial for too many of our pets’ comfort to discount their use just because there’s a possibility that a problem will ensue.

Pros and Cons of NSAID Drugs for Dogs

Pets are living much longer these days, dogs in particular. And it’s not always the result of fancier surgeries, improved cancer care, and better nutrition. I can honestly say from my experience that pain-relieving NSAIDs have made the most significant dent in my canine patients’ quality of life and longevity by far.

Years ago people euthanized dogs simply because they “can’t get up anymore, Doc.” That still happens, but with today’s meds vets can delay that date by years for most patients with garden-variety osteoarthritis. With NSAIDs in common use, we see more pets granted the “opportunity” of dying from other diseases now that pain relievers have become commonplace for older pets. (This perhaps explains why so many more dogs seem to get cancer these days than ever before-we can treat the pain that used to be reason enough for euthanasia.)

Of course, these drugs come with warnings you should know about, ones which veterinarians have a moral and ethical duty to divulge in detail. This is necessary not just because you, the human and caretaker, have a right to make a thoughtful decision for your pets, but also because knowing the risks and side effects means you can minimize them.

Common Side Effects (Adverse Reactions) of NSAID in Dogs

Indeed, pet owners who are NOT prepared to identify side effects and intervene if necessary are those whose pets usually suffer the greatest consequences from using these drugs. In fact, I’ve never known even one of my patients to have suffered a severe reaction to any NSAID. All reactions have been minor and the drug was discontinued, changed, or reduced in dosage so that pets could achieve an appropriate safety profile and comfort level: a win-win.
That’s great, right? But do YOU know the basic facts about NSAIDs?
In case you don’t or you have forgotten them, here’s a brief rundown on the must-knows:

  • Side effects of NSAID primarily include vomiting, regurgitation, diarrhea, lethargy, poor appetite, and evidence of nausea (licking the lips and/or salivating).
  • Dark, tarry stools, overtly bloody stools, bloody vomitus, and vomitus with coffee ground-like material in it are all evidence of more severe gastritis and/or enteritis. Worst case scenarios here can include severe bleeding ulcers, though these almost always have early warning signs to help you prevent them.
  • NSAIDs can damage the liver and/or kidneys. Pets (usually dogs) receiving regular, long-term doses of NSAIDs should have blood testing performed before the drug is initiated as well as one month afterwards and then every six months thereafter to ensure the liver is not experiencing severe effects from these medications. (Liver toxicity seems to happen to a certain subset of dogs, while kidney failure more often affects cats.)
  • Beware drug interactions. It’s not unusual for pets taking NSAIDs to wind up at an emergency hospital for some unrelated injury or illness. In these cases, owners MUST inform the new veterinarian of the drugs their pets are taking. That’s true for all drugs, but VERY important for NSAIDs since they cannot be combined with corticosteroids (like Prednisone), which are commonly used in emergency situations.

    Makes sense, right? These drugs may be a godsend but they’re not without their risks. Know what side effects look like, have your pets monitored, and ignore drug interactions at your own peril. Ask your veterinarian for more information that may specifically apply to your pet’s case.

    I hope this gives you more information about the use of NSAID in dogs and side effects that can happen. Understand the possible benefits and adverse reactions so you can make the best decision on drug use for your dog.

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