Can You Give Cats Tylenol or Other Pain Meds?
By Jennifer Coates, DVM
Cat pain relief is notoriously difficult. Pain meds routinely given to people and dogs can be toxic to cats. Which begs the question, “What are the safest and most effective pain meds for cats?”
Pet parents wondering what they can give their cat for pain need to first be aware of the dangers associated with many of the pain meds, like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs), found around the typical home. Examples of NSAIDs include aspirin and ibuprofen for people or carprofen, etodolac, and deracoxib for dogs. Cats are extremely sensitive to the side effects of NSAIDs, and this class of medication needs to be used with extreme caution (if at all) in cats and always under the close supervision of a veterinarian.
Why are NSAIDs Dangerous for Cats?
NSAIDs work by inhibiting an enzyme called cyclooxygenase that is responsible for producing prostaglandins. Prostaglandins promote inflammation, fever, and pain but also play a myriad of other roles in the body, including the maintenance of adequate blood flow to the kidneys, the production of a layer of mucus that protects the inner lining of the gastrointestinal tract from stomach acid, and the formation of normal blood clots.
Cats are roughly two to five times more sensitive to NSAIDs than are dogs. Because of this:
- Feline doses of these drugs are greatly reduced from those that are routinely used in other species
- The medications are given for a short period of time only
- Dosing intervals (the time that lapses between each dose) are much longer than typically seen with people or dogs
- NSAIDs are generally only used when safer forms of pain relief aren’t sufficient
When these guidelines are not followed, and sometimes even if they are, cats can develop vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, kidney and liver dysfunction or failure, bleeding disorders, and may die regardless of treatment.
What About Tylenol for Cats?
Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is even more dangerous to cats than NSAIDs and should NEVER be given to a cat under any circumstance. As little as one tablet of Regular Strength Tylenol contains enough acetaminophen to kill a cat. The drug’s metabolites (break down products) destroy liver cells, damage the kidneys, and convert hemoglobin — the oxygen-carrying molecule in blood — to methemoglobin resulting in poor oxygen delivery throughout the body and tissue damage. Acetaminophen can be given to dogs under some conditions, if a veterinarian says it is safe to do so.
What Can You Give a Cat for Pain?
Pain meds for cats should only be given to cats under close veterinary supervision. Pain of short duration is often treated with a prescription opioid pain reliever called buprenorphine, but this medication can be costly over the long run. Chronic pain associated with inflammation, like that caused by arthritis, tends to respond best to multi-modal therapy (taking several approaches at once), which often does not include what might be considered traditional pain meds at all.
Are there Alternatives to Pain Meds for Cats?
An appropriate diet can go a long way towards relieving chronic inflammation and pain in cats. For example, many overweight cats suffer from arthritis, and feeding these individuals a food that has a reduced caloric density but still has normal amounts of protein will help them lose weight while still allowing them to retain muscle mass and strength. Excess body weight not only puts undue stress on arthritic joints, it also promotes the inflammation that is at the heart of the disease. Foods that contain high levels of omega-3 fatty acids like docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) can also reduce joint inflammation and the pain associated with it.
Pain meds are not the only, or sometimes even the best, way to provide cat pain relief. Talk to your veterinarian to determine what combination of diet and other forms of therapy might be right in your cat’s case.