Your Pet’s Pain:
What You Can Do About It

By Christie Keith

In the first article in this series, I discussed the fact that dogs and cats, who by nature hide their pain, have been found by researchers to experience pain basically as humans do. In addition, it has been established that the experience of pain in and of itself can interfere with the healing process and depress the immune system of our pets. But what can we do when our dog or cat is in pain?

Most obviously, if your dog or cat has not been examined by a veterinarian, and is in pain, seeing the vet is the first step. What you may dismiss as arthritis could be any number of serious conditions, including cancer or a spinal infection. Do not proceed to treat your pet’s pain until you have established what is causing it.

First Aid for Minor Injuries

Obviously in the case of minor pains from known injuries, we will often treat our pets on our own, just as we do our children or ourselves. If your dog is suffering from “weekend warrior” syndrome after a long hike, or has had a minor injury, there are a number of simple home remedies you can try.

Just as with humans, ice should be the first treatment for a soft tissue injury or swelling. I have found that the homeopathic remedy arnica is also incredibly helpful with muscle strain, swollen soft tissues, or bruising. (This is not to be confused with the herbal remedy arnica; while they are the same herb; they are prepared completely differently. Be sure to obtain homeopathic arnica, usually from a health food store.) For a mild injury in a dog or cat, you can give the arnica in one of two ways. You can put a single pellet into the mouth of the pet and make sure they swallow it. The pellets are very tiny and slightly sweet, so most pets will swallow them willingly.

If the pet won’t take the pellet, simply put it into four ounces of water and stir ten times with a clean teaspoon, then give half a teaspoon of the liquid to the pet. It does not matter that the pellet will not have dissolved. For minor muscular injuries, one or two doses are usually sufficient. This dosage is appropriate for dogs or cats of all sizes.

There is a group of homeopathic remedies that is well known for use after injuries. It includes ruta, rhus tox, bellis perennis, ledum, and hypericum. Again, while these are herbs, and herbal versions of these remedies are available, I am talking about the homeopathic remedies made from the herbs, not the herbs themselves. All can be given in the same way as arnica, however, their use is more specific and selecting the appropriate remedy requires a little more information. A great book to have on hand to guide you to the appropriate remedy is Homeopathic First Aid for Animals by Kaetheryn Walker. You’ll also find useful information in Dr. Pitcairn’s Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats by Richard Pitcairn DVM PhD and Susan Hubble Pitcairn. There are also great guidelines to selecting homeopathic remedies for first aid here.

Herbal medicine has, of course, been dealing with pain for millennia. The single most common herb used for minor pain is Willow bark, Salix alba. This herb, the precursor to modern aspirin, may be easier on the stomach than aspirin, or even the supposedly GI-friendly new generation COX-2 inhibitors. (“Willow Bark Effective for Pain,” Rheumatology 2001.) If you do give aspirin to your dog, make sure it is Ascriptin or a form of aspirin formulated for dogs. Never give aspirin, willow bark, or any other pain medication to a cat; only give pain medication that your veterinarian recommends. Cats metabolize these drugs differently than dogs or humans.

Acupuncture is also very effective at reducing pain, swelling, and inflammation, so if you have an acupuncture vet available, and the injury is not responding to home care, you might want to give the needles a try. (Acupuncture’s use for chronic pain will be addressed in more depth below.)

What about drugs such as Rimadyl, Deramaxx, and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) for minor pain and injuries? Given the listed side effects of this class of drugs, which in the case of Rimadyl includes death, I feel their use for minor pain is swatting a fly with a cannon. Certainly these drugs have their place, but there are alternatives that can be explored before bringing out the big guns.

Arthritis and Chronic Pain

Arthritis is one of the most common medical problems afflicting dogs today, and a growing number of cats are also affected by it. Arthritis can be secondary to an earlier injury or surgery, can be caused by genetic conditions such as hip dysplasia, or can be the result of a number of degenerative processes that are not fully understood. There can be infectious agents involved in some types of arthritis, as well as an autoimmune component. Do not diagnose arthritis in your pet yourself. Be absolutely sure that your veterinarian has ruled out other causes for stiffness, lameness, and pain on movement.

The most common first reaction to arthritis is to reach for a pain medication, but I’m going to suggest something else. There is some evidence, not definitive by any means, that NSAIDs may actually make arthritic conditions worse, while masking the pain. (Journal of Orthopaedic Research, November 2002.) They also have some pretty serious listed side effects. And yet those are often used as a first line treatment, even for mild pain in a fairly young animal.

A better option in my view is to explore the many effective and safe alternatives that are available for the treatment of arthritis symptoms in dogs first. These may also be helpful in the treatment of pain from similar conditions such as spondylosis (calcium deposits on the spine).

Suggestions for first line defense for arthritis and similar chronic pain:

  • Examination and diagnosis by your veterinarian
  • Grain free, low carbohydrate diet
  • Weight reduction
  • Glucosamine/chondroiton supplementation
  • Fish oil and vitamin E supplementation
  • MSM, SAM-e, Cetyl Myristoleate if the animal responds to them
  • Appropriate homeopathic remedies
  • Mild anti-inflammatory herbs or drugs as needed
  • Acupuncture as needed
  • Injectable glucosamine (Adequan)

    While purely anecdotal, there are literally thousands of accounts of dogs and cats who were switched off of high-carb processed diets and put onto home prepared, low-carb diets, who experienced a great deal of relief from stiffness and pain. (You’ll see similar stories about humans who did the same thing!) Decreasing carbohydrates in the diet can also contribute to weight loss, and it is essential that dogs with hip dysplasia, arthritis, or any form of pain on movement be kept as lean as possible. While some kibbles are lower in carbs than others, there is no such thing as a “low carb” kibble. Information on home-prepared diets is available from any number of excellent books on the subject, a few of which are listed in the Resources section at the end of this article.

    Just as in humans, glucosamine/chondroiton supplements are effective in dogs and cats for the relief of arthritis symptoms. But they do more than just relieve symptoms; they actually lubricate the joint, reduce inflammation, and help cartilage rebuild in the affected areas. They don’t just mask pain; they actually help heal the joint. Not all glucosamine supplements are created equal; be sure to use one that has undergone independent testing.

    Fish oil has a number of important anti-inflammatory benefits and has been used with good results for arthritis. Be sure to give extra vitamin E, as increased levels of oil in the diet increase the body’s need for that vitamin.

    There are a number of other supplements that others have had tremendous luck with, including MSM, SAM-e, and Cetyl Myristoleate. If you try them, be sure to use them for a long enough period to make a fair judgment of their effectiveness. Supplements do not work like drugs, and you cannot expect overnight relief. A wonderful resource on the use of herbs and supplements in the treatment of arthritis can be found at

    Homeopathy can also work very well in the treatment of chronic pain from arthritis, but as with all chronic conditions, homeopathic treatment needs to be done by a professional. Chronic treatment is more complex and requires far greater levels of training than acute treatment or first aid. If you want to investigate homeopathy for the treatment of chronic pain, please find a good homeopathic veterinarian, preferably one who has been certified by the Academy of Veterinary Homeopathy (be sure to contact a practitioner who has been certified by the Academy, not just someone who has completed their training course) at, or PO Box 9280, Wilmington, Delaware, 19809.

    If supplements do not work or become less effective over time, veterinary acupuncture is a promising next step, when it is available. Acupuncture has been proven to have a beneficial effect on pain and inflammation, and in my experience has produced miraculous results in as little as a single visit. You can find a veterinarian who has been trained in acupuncture through the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society at or by calling 970-266-0666. In addition, in some states, a licensed human acupuncturists may treat animals under the supervision of a veterinarian, so you and your vet might want to explore this option.

    I have observed especially great results with the combination of acupuncture and Adequan, an injectable form of glucosamine that must be obtained through your veterinarian. Adequan is a drug manufactured by Lupitold, a very small company, and it is expensive and not frequently used by veterinarians. I am absolutely convinced that if they could invest in the kind of marketing program that Rimadyl and other drugs have benefited from, Adequan would be one of the most widely used arthritis treatments for dogs in the US. Like oral glucosamine supplements, it has been proven to go to the affected joints and lubricate them, reduce inflammation, and help rebuild cartilage. However, it is much more effective than its oral version, and will provide much more dramatic and rapid benefits. (“Joint Disease – A New Approach?” Veterinary Forum, October 1987.) It is essential that the label directions be followed, including the loading dose. If you try to space the injections out too far, or give fewer than the recommended number of injections, you will not get the same result, and might abandon a treatment that could give your dog years of pain-free activity.

    When those first-line therapies stop working, or if you cannot obtain the relief your animal needs to have a pain-free and fairly active life, you can investigate more powerful pain medications. In the next article in this series, I’ll focus on dealing with severe acute and chronic pain, post-surgical pain, and pain management in terminally ill pets.


    If you are looking for information on feeding a home-prepared diet to your pets or finding out more about dealing with pain in animals, there are any number of books and thousands of websites that will help. Here are a few resources to get you started.

    Dr. Pitcairn’s Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats by Richard Pitcairn DVM PhD and Susan Hubble Pitcairn

    Home-prepared Cat and Dog Diets: The Healthful Alternative by Donald Strombeck DVM PhD

    The K9Nutrition email list

    K9 Kitchen by Monica Segal

    Switching to Raw by Sue Johnson

    Herbs for Pets by Mary Wulff-Tilford and Gregory L. Tilford

    My weekly Holistic Pet Care online chat at (Thursdays at 9 PM Eastern Time)

    Copyright 2003 by Christie Keith


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