Over-the-Counter Pain Medicine: Why What’s Good for You Isn’t Good for Pets

By: Hillary Olin Smith, DVM

TVMA Member
Navasota, TX

Published July 2014

Most people know that when a child is sick or painful, a dose of Tylenol or ibuprofen will help start them on the road to recovery. However, the same is not true for dogs and cats. Medications that are commonly used in humans for pain and fever can be deadly when given to pets at any dosage level.

The term “NSAID” (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug) is used to describe medications such as Advil (ibuprofen), Aleve (naproxen) and aspirin. Tylenol (acetaminophen) is used to relieve many of the same symptoms, but it is classified as a mild pain reliever, rather than an NSAID. Tylenol does not have the same anti-inflammatory effects as NSAIDs. All of these medications can potentially be toxic to both dogs and cats and therefore should not be given without specific instructions from a veterinarian.

Aspirin can be used to treat pain in dogs and cats; however, there is a significant danger of overdose, and it is recommended that you speak with your veterinarian about the correct dosage before administering it to your pet. Cats are deficient in the enzymes necessary to properly metabolize aspirin, and it can therefore be extremely toxic to cats unless the correct dosing regimen is followed under a veterinarian’s instruction. Signs of aspirin overdose include vomiting, diarrhea and stomach ulcers.

Acetaminophen is sometimes prescribed by veterinarians for dogs; however, administration without veterinary guidance can easily cause toxicity. Again, cats are deficient in the enzymes necessary to properly metabolize acetaminophen, and the incompletely metabolized products are extremely toxic to cats at even very small doses. Signs of an acetaminophen overdose include an upset stomach (at lower doses) and may progress to liver failure, signs of which can include vomiting, lethargyA lack of energy and enthusiasm. and bruising or bleeding. Acetaminophen drugs should never be given to cats.

Ibuprofen and naproxen are toxic to both dogs and cats and should never be administered. Signs of an overdose include vomiting and gastric ulcers at lower doses. Higher doses may cause kidney failure to occur, leading to increased thirst and urination, dehydration and death.

If your dog or cat has ingested any of the above medications, call your veterinarian’s office immediately. Veterinary staff can calculate the toxic dosage of the medication and discuss what further steps might need to be taken. If you are directed to bring your animal to the veterinarian’s office, they may elect to induce vomiting if the animal has ingested the drug in the past hour. Inducing vomiting without the direction of your veterinarian is not advised, as it may cause aspiration of stomach contents and could worsen stomach ulcers. If the time of ingestion is unknown or longer than an hour, bloodwork may be taken to determine whether there has been damage to the liver and/or kidneys. The animal will possibly receive IV fluids, activated charcoal to absorb any toxins left in the stomach and medications that coat the stomach to reduce irritation. In the case of acetaminophen intoxication, there are some specific medications that will be given as well to reduce the toxic effects of the medication.

While some over-the-counter medications are safe and effective when used in dogs and cats, many more are toxic. Always call your veterinarian’s office before administering any human medications to your pets.


Hillary Olin Smith, DVM is a graduate of Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine and lives in Navasota, Texas. She works for three different practices: Hempstead Veterinary Clinic in Hempstead, Texas; Waller Veterinary Clinic in Waller, Texas; and Beard-Navasota Veterinary Hospital.

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  1. […] it’s important to remember not all OTC pain relievers are safe. For example, giving ibuprofen to dogs can be fatal. Other common OTC pain relievers that are highly toxic to dogs are acetaminophen and […]

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