Can You Give Human Pain Medication to Your Pet?

Author: Dr. Beth Turner

Published: December 22, 2021

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small white dog looking skeptically at hand holding a pillAnimals are not people. For this very reason, they should not be given pain medications labeled for human use without explicit instructions from their veterinarian. Dogs and cats metabolize and react differently to medications than we do.

We all know of someone who gave their pet over-the-counter (OTC) pain medication and the pet was fine. But there are many pets that have been given these medications that suffered toxic and even fatal effects. Below you'll find out why certain human pain medications can be so dangerous for dogs and cats.

What exactly is pain? For people, the International Association for the Study of Pain defines pain as "an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with, or resembling that associated with actual or potential tissue damage.1" The interesting thing is that pain in animals has been defined as “an aversive sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage.2” While the definition of pain is the same, treatment isn’t.

Wondering whether your pet is in pain? Check out these articles for help:

How Can I Tell if My Dog is in Pain?

How Can I Tell if My Cat is in Pain?

We, as humans, are fortunate that there is a myriad of OTC pain medications that we are able to take, such as ibuprofen or aspirin. These medications offer us relief and can in some cases completely resolve the problem. But we know that we are in pain as well as the likely cause of that pain.

While we may wish our pets could take these same medications, they can’t. What we may perceive as pain for them may actually not be pain. Or, if it is pain, it may be a signal of a deeper medical issue that needs to be evaluated by a veterinarian. There are also times, since pets are so good at hiding pain, that when we finally notice it the condition needs immediate medical attention.

orange tabby cat sniffing at red pill between paws 600

Do Not Give Your Dog or Cat Human Medications Without Vet Approval

Can I give my dog or cat ibuprofen (Advil®, Motrin®)?

The short answer is no. But it is human nature to want to know the reason why. Ibuprofen is classified as a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). This medication may be the only ingredient or mixed with other medications such as acetaminophen, antihistamines, or decongestants. While this medication is fairly safe for HUMANS and is used to treat a lot of issues such as headaches, colds, pain, etc., it can be toxic and fatal for pets.

The chemical processes that ibuprofen blocks to alleviate pain are also essential to other normal body functions. Following ingestion, it is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream. Since it is not removed from the body, it goes to the liver which then releases it to be reabsorbed by the intestines. This repeated process prolongs the effects of poisoning.

The severity of ibuprofen poisoning is dependent on the size and sensitivity of the pet, as well as the amount consumed. Poisoning can occur with just a single dose or multiple doses. Senior pets and puppies or kittens are often at higher risk of poisoning. Additionally, pets with underlying medical issues, such as liver or kidney disease, are at an increased risk. Another risk factor is pets already receiving NSAIDs or other medications.

General symptoms of ibuprofen toxicity in dogs and cats:

  1. Vomiting
  2. Diarrhea
  3. Loss of appetite
  4. Stomach Ulcers
  5. Dark tarry stool or bloody stool
  6. Pale gums
  7. Kidney failure
  8. Depression
  9. Incoordination
  10. Jaundice (yellow discoloration of skin/mucous membranes)
  11. Tremors
  12. Seizures
  13. Coma

Can I give my dog or cat acetaminophen (Tylenol®)?

The answer is NEVER for cats and a general no for dogs. Under very few and specific instances, a very low dose may be prescribed by a veterinarian with very strict guidelines. 

The way in which acetaminophen is metabolized is different for dogs and cats compared to humans. Therefore, even a very small dose can be toxic for dogs and cats. The medication is fast-acting. This means that soon after ingestion its toxic effect may be noted. It can cause irreversible kidney and liver damage. Cats are even more vulnerable and sensitive to the toxic effects than dogs.

Can I give my dog or cat naproxen sodium (Aleve®, Midol®)?

The answer to this question is absolutely not.

Naproxen is extremely toxic for dogs and cats even in quite small doses. It can cause severe gastrointestinal ulcers that can perforate and rupture the intestines. Acute kidney failure, anemia, neurologic problems, and liver failure are also possible.

Can I give my dog or cat aspirin or baby aspirin?

While it may be considered less dangerous than other human pain meds, it is not recommended to give aspirin to pets. Coated or buffered aspirin is not advisable since pets can’t fully break down the coating and therefore the effects are variable. Even low–dose or baby aspirin (81mg) can cause harm to cats and dogs, especially those with unknown gastric ulcers or liver and kidney issues. While the dose may be low in a baby aspirin, cats are still very vulnerable to it since it is cleared very slowly from their body and toxic effects can build up.

Once aspirin is ingested, the body produces the potentially toxic metabolite salicylate. The possible result is stomach ulcers, decreased blood clotting times, and kidney damage. These toxic effects last considerably longer than the benefits of pain relief.

In many pet care stores, aspirin is readily available. While you may think this is safe, it is actually dangerous.

The dose that is recommended on most bottles is often the one that causes stomach ulcers. Also, even if you only give your pet one dose, they may not be able to receive any other NSAIDs for a period of seven days. That means your pet will not receive much-needed and safer pain relief from their veterinarian.

As with many other medications, cats are particularly sensitive to aspirin. In some cases, even one aspirin can be fatal. This is due to the fact that cats metabolize it much slower.

Signs of aspirin toxicity include:

  1. Vomiting (may or may not contain blood)
  2. Diarrhea
  3. Decreased or loss of appetite
  4. Bloody stool or black stool
  5. Increased bruising
  6. Weakness
  7. Depression
  8. Death

What to Do If Your Dog or Cat Ingests A Human Pain Reliever?

About 50% of the pet poisoning calls to Pet Poison Helpline involve human medications3. And at the top of that list are NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen and naproxen.

If you suspect your pet has consumed any human medications, whether they are OTC or prescription, call your veterinarian, an animal emergency clinic, or a 24-hour pet poison hotline IMMEDIATELY.

You will need to know the following information:

  1. Your pet’s age, breed, and weight
  2. All ingredients in the medication
  3. The strength of the medications — milligrams per pill or per milliliter (ml)
  4. When you think they ingested the medication
  5. The amount they ingested
  6. Your pet’s medical history
  7. What medications that your pet currently takes
  8. Any signs or symptoms you're noticing

take medication over the sink Tips to Prevent Ingestion of Human Pain Medication in Pets

The best way to protect your pets from the accidental ingestion of human medications is by practicing the safe handling of all drugs. Here are some tips:

  1. Be sure to always put medication bottle lids on securely.
  2. Always keep medications in their original bottle with the original label.
  3. Never put your meds near your pet’s meds. Keep them in separate areas. Color code or write on the bottle lids, if you have to store your pet's medication in the same place as yours.
  4. Store all meds in high-up cabinets that are out of your pet’s reach. Counters are not a secure enough location.
  5. Weekly pill containers look like toys, do not leave them within reach of pets.
  6. Never store or leave loose pills in plastic bags.
  7. Always hang up a purse or bag. Pets are nosey and may try to explore them, potentially finding medication inside.
  8. Take medications over your sink or a large pulled-out drawer so that if you drop them they will be contained.
  9. Be sure all guests know medication safety rules and keep the door to their room shut at all times.
  10. Be sure when disposing of medications to do it properly. Do not just throw them in the trash. Be sure that you crush and dissolve them with something that is unpleasant tasting (i.e., kitty litter) and then dispose of them in a solid plastic container that you keep out of your pet’s reach.

Always remember, before ever giving your pet any medications that have not been prescribed specifically for them, contact your veterinarian. By giving your pet the wrong medications, you can actually be causing more harm than good.

About the author

Profile picture for Dr. Beth Turner

Dr. Beth Turner

Beth Turner is a veterinarian with over 20 years of experience. She graduated from North Carolina State College of Veterinary Medicine and following graduation, she began her career as an associate veterinarian and worked closely with the local shelter.

In 2007 she accomplished her dream of practice ownership, designing and building her own clinic. Another meaningful role, while running her clinic, was serving as her county's shelter veterinarian. This gave her the opportunity to help improve the lives of many animals in her community as well as work with the rescue she loved. She sold her practice in 2019 to move across the country.

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