It can be tempting for a pet parent to give a dog something to help them feel more comfortable when they come home limping from a long hike or exercise session, or experience an injury. However, you should never give your dog over the counter medications (OTC) human medications like children's Tylenol because it can cause poisoning. Tylenol (acetaminophen) is actually the most common household toxin ingestion that gets reported to pet poison hotlines like the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center. The second most common is the non steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, ibuprofen.
Why is Tylenol poisonous to dogs?
Tylenol and other human pain medications don't affect dogs' bodies the same way as they affect humans. The way a dog's body metabolizes acetaminophen is different from people. As a result, Tylenol ingestion can cause severe side effects. Your dog's liver enzymes — which reflect how that organ is doing — can go up severely, potentially resulting in liver failure and death. Tylenol can also cause gastrointestinal ulceration.
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Signs of Tylenol toxicity in dogs
If your dog ingests any amount of Tylenol, early treatment gives them the best chance for recovery. Signs of toxicity include:
- Decreased appetite or not eating at all
- Trouble breathing and/or rapid breathing
- Swelling of the face, paws or legs
- Dry eye
- Black stool
- Yellow gums or yellow sclera (whites of the eyes)
- Blue or brown gums
- Weakness or trouble walking
It is also wise to note that Tylenol is poisonous to other species as well, such as cats and ferrets. Cats are even more susceptible to toxicity than dogs since they don't have effective pathways to safely metabolize the drug. The signs of Tylenol toxicity in cats are similar to dogs, although a cat's red blood cells are more likely to be adversely affected. In ferrets, Tylenol can cause kidney failure, liver failure and death.
How is acetaminophen toxicity treated?
If your pet ate Tylenol, take them to a veterinarian immediately. If your veterinary clinic is closed, go to an emergency animal hospital. Don't spend time trying to induce vomiting at home. Depending on when your pet consumed the medication, it may be too late. Tylenol Gel Caps are absorbed particularly rapidly.
If your dog is severely debilitated or unconscious, vomiting will not be induced because at this point it's too late to do so and it's also not safe in general because of the risk for aspiration. Depending on the timing of ingestion, or if it's unknown, the veterinarian might induce vomiting with apomorphine.
If it's been deemed too late to induce vomiting, your dog will be given activated charcoal to bind the toxins in the digestive tract. They will also be given anti-vomiting meds to keep the activated charcoal down. Additional treatments include liver protective supplements and the antidote for Tylenol poisoning, which is n-acetylcysteine (NAC.) This may be give for at least two days. Intravenous fluids will also be started and you can expect your pet to be in the hospital for at least a few days.
Additional supportive care, like oxygen and a blood transfusion may also be needed if the poisoning was enough to adversely affect your pet's red blood cells. Your dog's blood work will continue to be monitored because liver damage may not be evident for several days.
Prognosis for Tylenol poisoning in dogs
If treatment is instituted quickly, the prognosis is fair to good. But outcome depends on many factors, such as your pet's general health, other medications they may be on, how long ago the Tylenol was ingested and when treatment is administered.
The bottom line
Though Tylenol used to be given the okay by some veterinarians in the past, there are now many better pain management medications available for dogs, such as Rimadyl (carprofen,) Galliprant or Metacam (meloxicam,) that are safer in general than human OTC pain relievers. However, if you have these medications at home for another pet, don't administer them to a pet it wasn't prescribed for unless directed to by your veterinarian. Whether your dog's pain is due to osteoarthritis or another reason, always talk with your DVM about safe options for pain relief.