Tramadol: an effective pain killer for pets?

Tramadol is a pain killer that is sometimes used in dogs. It might be used for short term pain relief after surgery or is could be used long term to treat something like arthritis. Does it actually work though and is it safe?

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Tramadol needs to be broken down in the body into different chemicals and it is these metabolites that are actually responsible for the analgesic, pain killing action of tramadol.

The problem is that it seems dogs produce very little of this M1 metabolite. Compounding this, it only lasts in the body for a very short time.

Tramadol does have other affects on the body. It increases the levels of seratonin and norepinephrin in the body which can have the effect of sedation or intestinal upset. Seratonin is also commonly known as the feel good or happy chemical and so it is possible that this helps our pets feel “happier” in themselves. The other side effects we rarely see include agitation, anxiety, tremors, dizziness as well as inappetence and constipation. Generally though side effects are rare and minor.

So the big question is “does tramadol work to reduce the pain my pet is in?”.

Personally speaking, I have found that some dogs really seem to improve well and become more comfortable after taking tramadol. Other patients though did not seem to get much benefit at all. More often than not I would also use tramadol as an addition to a pain killing strategy, using it at the same time as another pain killing medication.
The key with any pet in pain is to continually reasses their comfort levels so if something doesn’t seem to be working changes can be made.

why might we see an improvement in some dogs given tramadol? It could be due to two things? The first is that the other effects of tramadol on increasing seratonin may cause some sedation and may improve feelings of happiness and so our pets look better even when they are in the same amount of pain.

The other possible cause is the placebo effect. This is definitely an issue with both owners and veterinarians. We are all really invested in the health and wellbeing of our dogs and cats. We want the treatment that we give them to work and so this can mean we see improvement even when it is not actually present.

For me, my nagging doubts about how well tramadol actually works as well as the fact that there are alternative pain killers available have meant that it is not a drug I really reach for in my patients anymore.

If you want to learn about some alternative medications as well as other strategies to help keep your painful pet comfortable then I have a whole playlist on this topic:

Keeping our pets as comfortable and as pain free as possible with appropriate pain killers is something that I feel very strongly about.

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The information provided on the Our Pets Health YouTube channel is not a substitute for the examination, assessment and advice given in person by a suitably qualified veterinary surgeon. The information is provided for educational and entertainment purposes only and does not constitute specific vet advice for any individual cat, dog or other animal of any species.
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