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Latest health and behavior news and advice from the veterinarians at Tufts University.

Features May 2014 Issue

Does Your Dog Need a Sedative or Painkiller?

Distinguishing canine Alzheimer’s disease from something that hurts physically.

A number of older dogs are brought to our Foster Hospital for Small Animals because they have started engaging in outbursts of bizarre behavior. Before they get here, it has often been assumed that they have developed canine cognitive decline — the dog version of Alzheimer’s — and have been administered sedatives to keep them calm in the throes of their dementia. But what we have found in more than a few cases is that the unusual deportment does not result from dementia but from a condition that causes physical pain. It’s not surprising. Older dogs are more likely than middle aged and younger ones to develop illnesses that cause either intermittent or chronic pain, and it can easily take more than just one visit to a veterinarian to get to the root of the problem.

For that reason, if your geriatric pet starts acting fretful, anxious, or otherwise upset and it seems to come out of nowhere, talk with your vet about not starting with a sedative — a strong drug that will only make your pal groggy and disoriented. Instead, start with an analgesic, or pain reliever, and see if that works. It could mean the difference between something like a Valium and an aspirin, with the aspirin being much more benign.

Your vet might in fact prescribe a drug similar to aspirin in the form of a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), or maybe amitriptyline (Elavil), an antidepressant that’s effective for the treatment of chronic pain, or even tramadol (Ultram), an opioid. There’s a reasonably good chance it will take the edge off your pet’s pain until the physical cause of his anxious behavior can be identified.

If your dog does turn out to be going through cognitive decline rather than a painful disease, you won’t have caused him any harm. Administering sedatives, on the other hand, does not address what it truly wrong, acting neither on dementia nor a painful condition. It can even make a dog harder to diagnose and treat by masking important clinical signs. 

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