If your pet has been prescribed an NSAID you might be wondering what it is, and what it does. NSAIDs are one of the most commonly prescribed classes of drugs in animal medicine, with millions of doses given daily. They’re used for everything from routine surgery to part of a care plan for complex conditions such as arthritis. 

What are NSAIDs?

NSAID stands for Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug. It’s an important class of drug that is used for pain relief and anti-inflammatories in people and animals. If you’ve ever taken ibuprofen, you’ve taken a human NSAID. Dogs and cats can’t have ibuprofen, but they commonly get prescribed other anti-inflammatories such as meloxicam or carprofen.

What types of NSAIDs are there for pets?

There are lots of drugs that count as NSAIDs, and many of them are given different brand names. They come in liquid, tablet and injectable forms. The most common include:

  • Meloxicam (common brand names: Metacam, Loxicom, Meloxidyl, Inflacam and Rheumocam)
  • Carprofen (common brand names: Rimadyl, Carprieve, Rimifin, Carprox, Rycarfa)
  • Robenacoxib (common brand name: Onsior)
  • Cimicoxib (common brand names: Cimalgex)
  • Mavacoxib (common brand names: Trocoxil)

Why has my pet been prescribed an NSAID?

NSAIDs are commonly prescribed for painful conditions such as arthritis or spinal pain. They may also be prescribed after trauma or injury, for instance if your pet has a wound, a joint injury, or a fracture. Your dog or cat might also be prescribed an NSAID to control pain after routine or planned surgery such as a neutering operation or a lump removal.

How do NSAIDS work?

Inside your dog’s body, two enzymes called COX-1 and COX-2 turn molecules such as arachidonic acid into prostaglandins. Prostaglandins are used in many organs, and can have many different effects. They help to produce protective mucus in the stomach and guts. They cause blood vessels to contract and dilate. They help blood to clot. They also cause redness, swelling and pain in inflamed tissues. COX-1 tends to make ‘normal’ prostaglandins. COX-2 is used to step up prostaglandin production to cause inflammation.

NSAIDs stop the COX enzymes from working, therefore stopping the production of prostaglandins. This is a tricky balance, as ‘good’ prostaglandins are so important for other things, not just inflammation. The ideal NSAID would block COX-2 and not COX-1 to reduce the chance of side-effects, and many modern NSAIDs are better at blocking more COX-2 than COX-1.

What are the side effects of NSAIDs?

Like any drug, NSAIDs do have some side effects for dogs. The most common side effect is usually gastric upset, including vomiting and diarrhoea. Because dogs on NSAIDs are producing fewer normal prostaglandins to protect the stomach, vomiting can cause problems far quicker than usual, and you should immediately stop the medication and call your vet for advice. 

Other reported side effects include:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Bloody or black stool
  • Lethargy
  • Renal failure and liver problems

Can all dogs have NSAIDs?

NSAIDs shouldn’t be given to dogs with certain conditions or to dogs that are already on other medications. It’s important that you tell your vet if your dog is taking any other medication, supplement, herbal remedy or food additive in order to ensure the combination is safe for your pet. 

NSAIDs should never be given to dogs that are on steroid therapy, or who are taking diuretics or some forms of antibiotics. Because they can impact the production of the useful prostaglandins, they also shouldn’t usually be given to dogs with stomach ulcers, who have had intestinal surgery, or who have kidney or heart problems. NSAIDs should be used with care in dogs with a poor appetite and dogs with dehydration and poor blood pressure.

Can NSAIDs be used long-term?

NSAIDs can be useful to control pain in long-term conditions such as arthritis, so can be used long-term. However, the risks increase with longer use, and especially with dogs who are older and may be more likely to have other conditions that mean the NSAIDs would be unsafe. Use of NSAIDs in dogs for chronic conditions should be on a risk-benefit basis, and dogs should be carefully monitored. Your vet will probably recommend regular blood testing so that any problems can be detected early on.

Is there an alternative over-the-counter pain relief I can give my pet?

Pain relief is not available over the counter for pets. Because dogs can’t speak and iterate their pain, your vet has to determine that they’re painful, as well as check if there’s any reason they can’t have the medication. For safety, this almost always means they need to see a vet in order to get a prescription. For some dogs on long-term medication, your vet might not need to physically examine them every time you need more medications, but they do legally need to have a check up regularly to ensure that the drug is still an appropriate choice.

Can I give human NSAIDs to my pet?

You should not give your dog any human medications unless your vet specifically tells you to. Many human medications are poisonous to pets. Ibuprofen, the most common and easily-accessible human NSAID, can be fatal to dogs. Paracetamol is lethal to cats, and easy to accidentally overdose dogs too. 

What should I do if I’m worried about my pet taking NSAIDs?

If your pet has been prescribed an NSAID and you have concerns, you should talk to the vet who prescribed it. They’ll happily discuss their reasons for choosing it, the suitability for your pet, ways to mitigate any risks, and appropriate alternatives with you.