In Part 1 of Dogs in Pain I discussed how to tell if your dog is in pain. It can be surprisingly hard! So now you have a better idea of what to look for to better understand when your dog is in pain. Maybe you’ve seen some of the signs of pain in your own dogs after reading Part 1. Or if not, you’ll be sensitised to these signs in the future if a problem develops that causes your dogs to be in pain.
But what do you do to help them?
It’s always a good idea to have your dog assessed to try to find out what the cause of the pain is. Going to your local vet is a good place to start, but you need to be aware that many vets are not skilled in assessing dogs for myofascial and back pain—I’ve assessed a good number of dogs who had been given the all clear by a vet only to find that these dogs had significant pain. It’s wise to also take your dog to a skilled pet bodyworker, physiotherapist, masseuse, or rehab expert as well, especially if the vet can’t find any pain, let alone a cause of the pain that you’re seeing the signs of in your dog.
Diagnostic Tests for Dogs in Pain
A bit more about vets—as a profession, we are trained to have a very strong motivation to find out what the problem is, and our primary tools for doing this are a range of diagnostic tests. These range from lab work (blood tests, biopsies, histology, etc.) to a whole wealth of imaging technologies such as radiography, CT scans, MRI scans, ultrasound scans, and thermography, and can extend to exploratory surgery as well.
It’s really important for you as a dog owner to understand that diagnostics often tell you what isn’t the problem, rather than telling you what the problem is. This can be very frustrating (not to mention expensive). Vets seldom run out of options for another test to run!
One piece of advice I give clients is this: Ask yourself this one, very important question before you give your vet the go-ahead to run any diagnostic tests— “Will the outcome of this test change how I’m going to treat my dog?” If the answer is “no” then you’ll be wasting your money and putting your dog through unnecessary stress. This is especially important for very old dogs.
So your step one is to find out what’s causing the pain. You also need to understand if this problem is acute or chronic. If it is chronic (the classic example being arthritis), then you’ll need to go on a long term treatment plan.
Holistic Pain Treatment Options for Dogs
In my practice, I prefer to start with non-prescription pain relief. However, I have to make an assessment about how severe the pain is first—if you have very severe pain, it may be best for your dog to go straight onto a really strong prescription pain relief medication! I’ll talk you through the options I recommend, starting with mild pain, and then moving towards stronger pain relief.
If you have a dog who has injured themselves while playing or competing, or if you have an older dog with chronic arthritis, one simple treatment that can help a lot is a heat pack. Heat applied to the body helps tension and pain let go. Wheat bags heated in the microwave or hot water bottles are both good—just be sure to test that it’s not too hot by holding it on your cheek for a good 30 seconds. You can apply heat packs every hour or two if need be, or morning and night to help old dogs feel better.
A good diet is super important—especially in arthritic dogs. The most effective treatment of all (and this is proven) is to get them lean and healthy—a whole food raw diet, and you should be able to easily feel their ribs with light pressure, and even be able to see the ribs a bit. If your dog is in pain and fat, this increases pain levels considerably.
If your dog has back or myofascial pain, bodywork will help reduce their pain considerably. You’ll need to find a skilled practitioner that suits your dog—be willing to try several before settling on the best one, and then have regular sessions—at least once a month gives the best results in my experience. Whole Energy Body Balance, PetMassage, myofascial massage, craniosacral and many other hands-on modalities can help. If you don’t live near a practitioner, learn how to work on your dog yourself (Whole Energy Body Balance online training is due to launch soon).
Reduce high impact exercise as much as possible, and do as much low impact exercise as you can with your dog—swimming and hydrotherapy can be great!
Herbs for Dog Pain
A fantastic and very safe herbal anti-inflammatory medicine is CBD (cannabidiol). This can be used for mild to moderate acute or chronic pain. It’s especially good for older dogs with arthritis (you would use it every day for dogs like that). Be sure to source an organically grown, whole plant hemp extract that has no THC in it.
Turmeric is another very safe herb with great anti-inflammatory effects. Look up the Golden Paste recipe and make your own, or you can source it already made up too. It’s more effective in combination with black pepper and ginger, and you need to make sure your dog has some fat at the same time you give it to them to make it as effective as possible. You could give this twice daily for a few days for acute pain, and chronically for older dogs with arthritis.
There are a range of other herbs that you can try—boswellia (Frankincense), feverfew, licorice, devil’s claw, and ginger are relatively safe herbs with anti-inflammatory properties. Use these at an equivalent dose per bodyweight as for humans.
There are other herbs that can help with pain and inflammation, but you should seek expert guidance before using them, as some can cause harm. Traditional Chinese herbalism is something I have not much knowledge of, but they can be highly effective—you’d need to find a TCM practitioner to consult with.
Other Holistic Options
Acupuncture or acupressure can provide very good pain relief in some cases, and are a very good idea to incorporate into a long-term treatment plan. Also for acute severe pain from a disk protrusion, I strongly recommend this treatment. It may be the difference between needing spinal surgery or not!
Homeopathy can sometimes give good pain relief—you can use low potency (up to 10c) and self-prescribe according to your dog’s symptom picture, but I encourage you to consult with a skilled homeopath, as you’ll get far better results if you do. It’s very safe, and well worth considering as part of your treatment plan.
If your dog has arthritis (one of the more common causes of chronic pain in dogs) then Green lipped mussel extract can help a lot. A single daily dose is required (I use and recommend the one made by Lovely Health in New Zealand—be careful to source a high quality one as many brands are not much good). Be aware that this medicine takes a month to build up and take full effect. I find this is more effective the glucosamine and chondroitin.
Squid oil can help with chronic inflammation and pain, and has the best balance of essential fatty acids of any seafood oil. It’s also more sustainable and has less heavy metal contamination than most fish oils.
Specifically for arthritis, Cartrophen injections can be a huge help for some dogs—about on in twenty dogs it doesn’t seem to help at all, but most show good improvement, and some very good improvement. I’d hesitate to use this in any dog with a history of cancer. There are several brands—Pentosan, Zydax, etc.
What if the Natural Treatments Aren’t Enough?
The most important thing is to keep your dog comfortable. And sometimes, prescription medications are the only things that are going to help, even though they carry a risk of side effects. If you’re already on a holistic pain protocol, try to keep on with as much of that as you can (as long as none of the herbs are dangerous to use with the prescription meds). The hands-on work, acupressure, heat packs, hydrotherapy, rehab work, etc. should continue alongside the prescription medications if at all possible.
If you have an old animal with chronic pain, you’ll hit a certain point where palliation (pain relief) has to become the most important thing to consider. I’ve had some very old, arthritic, painful dogs on several prescription medications for up to 3 years, every day. Yes, it’s hard on their liver and kidneys, but they are in too much pain not to do this, simple as that. You can assess this by going week on/week off with various medications for a month or two, and assess the difference in their quality of life to help you understand when this is needed.
Veterinary Drug Options for Pain Relief
Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatories (NSAIDs) are one of the most widely used drugs for pain relief in dogs. There is a whole host of different brands and drugs in this family of medicines. They can cause gastric upset and ulceration, so if your dog seems off colour, vomits or has diarrhea, stop using them immediately! (This is rare.) Sometimes one kind of NSAID will work for some dogs whilst another will make them sick. If your dog is on them long-term, regular blood tests may be a good idea.
Corticosteroids—prednisolone, cortisone. These drugs are truly a last resort for me in my practice, so I use them very rarely. The side effects are horrendous. If you have a vet who suggests these for arthritis management, I’d question it and ask for other options. Or change vets. Where this class of medications may be very helpful is if the pain is due to autoimmune disease that can’t be controlled with more natural methods. In this case I’d consider it to be palliative medicine, and a very good thing indeed.
Gabapentin is a drug originally developed for nerve pain, and is now used extensively for an arthritis treatment in dogs. It can make some dogs very dopey. It’s not a drug I prescribe, but I know it can sometimes be very helpful.
Opiates provide strong pain relief—Tramal is a medicine I have prescribed a lot over the years—recent research suggests it’s not effective in treating arthritic pain, but my clinical experience suggests otherwise, so it may be worth experimenting with this. For very strong pain relief (especially post-surgery, but can also be for end-stage severe arthritis or cancer pain) the Fentanyl Patches are a last resort.
With these prescription medications, some experimentation may be required to find out what works best for your dog. If ever you feel that your dog doesn’t agree with any medication, stop it immediately and get back to the vet.
Human Pain Medications—don’t go there! It’s way too risky to give your pet your pain medications, you could do them serious harm.
The Final Cure for Pain…
Is to send your pet off to the other side with love. It’s always the hardest thing you’ve ever done. One day you’ll look at your friend, and you’ll see that even though you’re throwing every possible pain-relief herb, treatment and drug at them, and you’ll see the signs of pain breaking through.
In the face of severe, uncontrollable pain, the final gift of mercy you can give your dog is to put them to sleep. It’s never a decision taken lightly, but it is an important option to consider, and to be ready for when the time comes.
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Many clients remark that Dr Edward has a way with animals quite unlike any other vet they have ever seen. Pets who are normally fearful, or who would never approach a stranger are drawn to him. He has an intuitive ability to connect with and understand animals.
Apart from being a vet, Dr Edward is a singer/songwriter, loves gardening, and likes to paint. He is owned by Pearl (a very graceful, willfully disobedient Whippet), Mitzi (an out of control Shitzu/Silky cross), and Parvati and fred (2 lovely cats).
Latest posts by Edward Bassingthwaighte, BVSc (see all)
- Dogs in Pain Part 1: It can be Surprisingly Hard to Tell When Your Dog is in Pain! - July 8, 2018
- Dogs in Pain Part 2: Treating the Pain—What are Your Options? - June 24, 2018
- Back Pain is a Severely Underdiagnosed Problem in Dogs - April 16, 2018