How To Handle Pain Control For Cats

By Dr . Joi Sutton|2017-09-28T09:04:08-04:00Updated: September 28th, 2017|Pet Care, Pet Newsletter|4 Comments
  • Cat hiding under building

I recently interacted with a client who asked about pain control for her cat who had oral cancer. Whether it is oral pain, arthritis pain, post-operative pain or other discomfort, cats can be tricky to treat. Recognizing that your cat is in discomfort is one thing. How to get a medication into a cat is another! There are a variety of pharmaceutical and therapeutic options. Today we will look mostly at medications that we can use for pain control for cats.


Veterinarians often use non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for dogs with pain. Humans pop both prescription and over the counter NSAIDs at an alarming rate in my opinion. NSAIDs are often the first line in pain control because inflammation is a significant cause of pain. NSAIDs are fantastic, but like all meds they can have potentially harmful side effects. We do use NSAIDs in cats, but cats are unique. Cats have a different set of liver enzymes compared to dogs and humans, and they don’t metabolize NSAIDs very well. We have to be very careful using NSAIDs in our feline friends.

Few NSAID drugs have FDA approval for cats. Meloxicam (aka Metacam or Ostilox) and Carprofen (aka Rimadyl) are FDA approved for one dose in cats. Robenacoxib (aka Onsior) has FDA approval for 3 consecutive days in cats. Sometimes veterinarians will use a NSAID in an “extra label” fashion and use it longer than the approved FDA labeling. In these situations the veterinarian will discuss the risks with the client and together the client and doctor can decide if it is worth the risks.

What are the risks? NSAIDS are potentially damaging to the stomach and GI tract (manifesting as vomiting, diarrhea and possibly even stomach ulcers), the kidneys and the liver. Cats seem especially sensitive to kidney damage from NSAIDs. It’s very important that the patient is well hydrated when administering an NSAID. Even we humans should be careful about our hydration status when we take an NSAID made for humans. I personally won’t take an NSAID unless I am very well hydrated and even then I also drink a huge glass of water at the same time.

So if we are limited in how long we can give an NSAID to a cat, what are our alternatives for pain control?


Oral buprenorphine is a mixed agonist/antagonist that tends to work nicely in cats. It doesn’t cause increased body temperature as some narcotics can cause in felines. And due to its pH it can be absorbed across the gums so it is convenient! It can last for up to 8 hours. It’s great for an acute situation as most cat owners can squirt a bit of liquid into their cats’ mouths. Vets often use this in short term situations, but occasionally we use it for longer term situations.

Vets, myself included, also like Fentanyl patches for short term pain. The risk here is the cat pawing the patch off or the cat chewing the patch off and swallowing it, thereby risking overdose from to the accidental ingestion.

Tramadol usually tastes awful, but it is an effective narcotic in cats. We can get compounding pharmacies to compound it into small tablets or liquid, but even so many folks have trouble getting it into a cat.


Adequan (off label use in cats) is approved for dogs and horses to decrease inflammation in joints and to improve the viscosity of joint fluid. It is not FDA approved for cats, but I give monthly injections of Adequan to my own arthritic cat. I’ve read that some cats have lethargy for a day after the injection. I can’t say that I’ve noticed any lethargy with my own darling cat, Twinkle, after her injection.


You heard me right. Cerenia, the anti-nausea medication, can also be used for pain. It works on “substance p” (p is for pain), and it provides potent analgesia to the GI tract.


Gabapentin helps pets with chronic pain, particularly arthritis pain or neuropathic pain (chronic nerve pain). Its main side effect is that it can make pets sleepy. I’ve made more than one pet sleepy and have learned to start at a low dose and then gradually increase the dose as needed with weekly assessments. We need to be cautious using it if there is kidney insufficiency. Gabapentin comes in a commercially prepared liquid for humans, but I find it easiest to sprinkle the capsule (or part of a capsule) onto a bit of canned cat food. I have my own cat on Gabapentin for her arthritis. Admittedly she is a highly food motivated pet, but she doesn’t seem to mind it at all. I’ve even tasted the Gabapentin powder (the stuff in the capsules) and found it to have minimal taste.

Therapeutic Laser

I love my class 4 therapeutic laser. I use it for arthritic pets, post-surgically for most of the surgeries I perform, and for many inflammatory and/or painful conditions. It utilizes light energy to decrease pain and inflammation. Veterinarians and chiropractors often utilize class 4 lasers to promote healing and for painful conditions. I use my class 4 laser repeatedly throughout the work day.


This is on my bucket list to learn. Somehow running my own vet clinic and being the staff veterinarian for ADW Diabetes, I’ve not quite gotten around to acupuncture training, but I believe it works. There are more and more holistic veterinarians that provide this service.

Have a question or comment? Post below or email me at [email protected]. I always enjoy hearing from my readers!

NOTE: Consult your veterinarian first to make sure my recommendations fit your pets special health needs.

About the Author: Dr . Joi Sutton

Dr. Joi Sutton is a 1993 graduate from Oregon State University. She has practiced both in emergency medicine and general practice. Dr. Sutton has done extensive international volunteer work though Veterinary Ventures, a nonprofit organization that takes teams of veterinarians to undeveloped countries for humane medical care. She also runs a small animal practice in South Florida. Connect with Dr. Joi on LinkedIn


  1. Liz September 30, 2017 at 7:58 pm - Reply

    CBS (cannabis oil/hemp) should be a consideration in treating pain. My cat, who suffers with pancreatitis, has benefited greatly from it.

  2. Martha Greenleaf September 28, 2017 at 12:13 pm - Reply

    with the exception of being restrained which some cats won’t tolerate, do you find cats resistant to laser therapy? what would a typical laser treatment look like ? do you see immediate effects or only after a number of treatments ? what would you expect the range of cost to be for laser treatment?

    • Dr Joi November 7, 2017 at 10:01 pm - Reply

      Some cats do great after just a single treatment (especially for issues like urinary pain). Some cats need 6 to 8 treatments.

      Restraint isn’t much of an issue for kitties in my experience. Laser therapy doesn’t hurt. Cats are usually quite tolerant of laser therapy!

      Cost at my clinic varies between $10 to $35 per session.

      I love my class 4 laser.

      🙂 Joi

Leave A Comment

Go to Top