What can I give my dog for pain?

If your dog suffers an injury or illness, it can be tempting to reach into your bathroom medicine cupboard. Maybe ‘borrow’ some dog medication from a friend, to ease their pain. But is that safe – or even legal?!

The law

Under the Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966, only registered veterinary surgeons have the right to decide whether an animal needs medication (with the exception of products such as some flea and worm treatments, which can be prescribed by a suitably qualified person or pharmacist). If so, which specific medication is required.  So if you decide to give your dog some human pain killers you are actually breaking the law. Likewise using veterinary medication that has been prescribed for another animal (whether another pet you have or someone else’s dog) is also illegal. 

The Veterinary Medicines Regulations 2013 (VMR) state that, for a vet to prescribe medication, the pet must be ‘under their care’. If you feel your pet needs painkillers this will almost certainly require they’re seen by your vet before your vet can prescribe medication. This isn’t just a legal requirement – it’s for your pet’s benefit too. For example, your vet may find your limping dog actually has a broken bone. In which case a week of painkillers is not going to fix the problem and would just extend their suffering. You may feel your dog needs painkillers to help a tummy ache. But a vet may find on examining them that they have a gut obstruction which would be fatal without surgical treatment.

My vet has examined my dog – now can they have ‘human’ painkillers?

Legally and medically, it’s not that simple. 

Veterinary medicines are licensed (meaning legally allowed to be used) for specific medical conditions for specific species in specific countries. To comply with the law your vet MUST prescribe your dog a drug that is licensed in the UK. For use not just in dogs, but in dogs suffering from the same problem as your dog. 

If there is no such medicine licensed in the UK, your vet may prescribe medicine licensed in another country. Or in a different species/condition in the UK, or, as a very last resort, a human medication. For example breaking up a dog tablet small enough to treat a teeny Chihuahua like mine would be impossible. So we could prescribe a liquid human medication instead. This system is called the Prescribing Cascade, and isn’t optional – it’s part of the legal obligations your vet has to work under.

Some veterinary licensed medications are exactly the same as the human equivalent, but it is still ILLEGAL to prescribe the human version rather than the veterinary one!

Are there any human painkillers my vet might prescribe?

There are a large range of painkillers licensed for dogs in the UK, so there are plenty of non-human painkillers your vet can (and legally must) choose from for your vet. To obtain their licence drugs must first undergo extensive safety testing. Human drugs obviously aren’t tested for safety in dogs, so there’s a much greater risk of unexpected side effects.

It sounds obvious, but a dog is not the same as a human – we break down drugs differently to one another.  We reach for the ibuprofen to treat our own aches and pains, yet it’s highly toxic (even fatal) to our pets and must NEVER be given to them. 

Paracetamol may sometimes be prescribed for dogs but we need to consider the issue of size. Adult humans are (roughly) all the same size. But there’s quite some difference between my Chihuahua and a previous colleague’s Great Dane! As a result there’s no ‘two tablets for adults’ type dosage for dogs like there is in people; vets must calculate doses exactly based on the animal’s weight to avoid dangerous overdosing or ineffective underdosing. The exact formulation is important too. Some liquid paracetamol products contain sweetener to make them more appealing to human children. But the sweetener can also be toxic to pets! As an important aside, cats cannot metabolise paracetamol so even a tiny amount can be fatal. NEVER give paracetamol to cats! 

So if you’re concerned your pet is in pain, you must contact your vet for advice. Aside from human medications having the potential to be lethal to pets, you (and your vet) want to stay on the right side of the law!

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