It's heartbreaking to see a dog suffering in pain. If it happens, it's important to seek immediate veterinarian care for pain medications that offer quick pain relief. Whether your dog's pain is stemming from a sudden event, your dog is experiencing postoperative pain, or it's due to a chronic pain condition, your veterinarian might prescribe tramadol for pain relief. Marketed for humans under the brand name Ultram (among others), this drug is not currently approved for use in animals by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but some veterinarians may prescribe it under the FDA's "extra label" use provision.
Debate surrounding tramadol use
There is an ongoing debate in veterinary medicine surrounding the efficacy of oral tramadol use for arthritis pain in dogs. It's thought that tramadol use might simply elevate their mood, so it may appear that they feel better. While it may give them a feeling of euphoria, in reality, the medicine may not be doing anything to relieve their acute pain. Some specialists believe the oral form is not effective for arthritis pain nor a post-op painkiller at all.
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Tramadol hydrochloride for dogs
Tramadol hydrochloride is an opioid similar to codeine, but it's synthetic. It is no longer considered a primary analgesic — a drug to prescribe first — but is instead considered an add-on to other drugs used in pain management. Dogs in moderate or severe pain might receive tramadol along with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Tramadol is available in tablet form and is usually given two to three times daily.
Tramadol side effects in dogs
Although most dogs tolerate tramadol well, side effects that can harm your dog's health can occur. Some dogs experience side effects of tramadol that include gastrointestinal problems, nausea, sleepiness, loss of appetite, vomiting, and constipation. Some animals might also experience potential side effects that include a decreased heart rate, but thankfully, it's usually not enough to harm the dog. You may also notice your dog's pupils constricting and an increase in panting.
If your dog takes the drug for a long period — six weeks or more — they could develop hypermotility (abnormal or excessive movement) and might get diarrhea if the drug is abruptly discontinued. A dog who is allergic to tramadol might exhibit hives, mouth swelling, or breathing problems. If you suspect an allergy or see any other concerning side effect, call your DVM immediately.
Tramadol overdose in dogs
If your veterinarian miscalculated the proper dosage or if you accidentally give too much to your dog tramadol may cause your dog to develop seizures or exhibit behavioral changes. In a worst-case scenario, your dog can suffer from cardiac arrest or respiratory depression and die. There's a chance your dog might go into a coma too. If your dog exhibits any signs of an overdose, take them to an emergency veterinary hospital immediately. After recovery, your veterinarian might opt to lower the dosage or switch your dog to another drug.
Contraindications of tramadol for dogs
Epileptic dogs, or those with a history of seizure disorders, should not receive tramadol, as the medication appears to lower the seizure threshold. If your dog has kidney disease or liver disease, your veterinarian might opt not to use tramadol or may lower the tramadol dosage. The same holds true for elderly or debilitated canines in general as well as those who are pregnant or nursing puppies.
Dogs receiving anti-depressants or any medications acting on the central nervous system should not take tramadol. Pet owners should always tell their veterinarian about any medications or supplements a dog is currently receiving to avoid harmful drug interactions.
The bottom line
Although tramadol is not currently approved for use in animals by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, some pet parents may have it prescribed under the FDA's "extra label" use provision. Its use is controversial, as some veterinarians don't believe it's actually a painkiller but rather just elevates a dog's mood. If your veterinarian does prescribe tramadol, be sure to monitor your dog closely for any allergic reactions or concerning side effects, and if you notice any, contact your veterinarian immediately.