It’s a headache when your dog has a headache- and even more of a headache when it decides to take headache pills by itself.
Heckin’ headaches, right?
So, what will happen if your dog ate Excedrin?
Unfortunately, it’s not very good news.
Excedrin contains not just one- or even two- but three different, potentially-toxic ingredients.
Acetaminophen, aspirin and caffeine make up this veritable cocktail of a medicine, and all three can be significantly toxic to canines depending on the size and individual sensitivities of the dog in question.
What complicates matters even more than the huge number of possible side effects is the fact that they all compound together and amplify the others’ effects.
Some of the symptoms of Excedrin poisoning can include:
- Difficulty breathing
- Pale, brown gums
- Bloody stools
- Irregular heartbeat
Since Excedrin toxicity can be lethal, it’s important to take your dog to the vet immediately as soon as you have discovered that it has swallowed the pills. If you act quickly, not only could you prevent significant organ damage- you might just save your best friend’s life.
As you may already be aware, Excedrin is one of the most popular over-the-counter headache pain-relievers in the United States. Made in the form of tablets or capsules, there are 6 different versions of Excedrin in the entire product range.
They all mostly share three of the same ingredients in a two-tablet dose, namely:
- Acetaminophen (250mg)
- Aspirin (250mg)
- Caffeine (65mg)
It’s just pure bad luck for dogs and dog owners alike that all three are toxic in varying degrees.
When combined together, the poisonous effects become compounded and make Excedrin a truly dangerous drug.
This is because when non-steroidal chemicals are administered at the same time, the odds of negative symptoms increase greatly as the chemicals build onto each other’s side effects.
Acetaminophen, more commonly known as paracetamol, is a non-steroidal medication that has the ability to fight inflammation.
While it’s commonly used to control pain and fever in medicines like Nyquil, it is also arguably the most dangerous component of Excedrin that pet owners need to be wary of.
Acetaminophen has the capacity to cause stomach ulcers, red blood cell damage, and liver failure in dogs very rapidly as the chemical is quickly absorbed in the GI tract.
Within 30 minutes of ingestion, acetaminophen permeates into the bloodstream and the substances which are created start to deteriorate the liver and blood cells by binding to them.
Severe liver damage leads to eventual failure, and red blood cell damage will result in a worsened state of oxygen transport throughout the body to vital organs.
Acetaminophen toxicity symptoms in dogs will occur starting at a dose of 75mg per kilogram (or around 40mg per pound) of body weight.
Aspirin is another common medication that can be used to reduce inflammation, pain and fever.
It does this by blocking specific inflammatory enzyme processes in the body. However, by doing so, it also blocks normal chemical processes that control GI, kidney, and blood clotting functions.
Aspirin is a medication that is sometimes used in dogs as it is easily absorbed and spreads efficiently to areas of tissue inflammation. However, it has a removal time in dogs that is four times longer than in humans, and because of this poisoning can occur more easily.
Excessive doses, accidental ingestion or overly-frequent usage can all result in toxicity. Dogs that have existing kidney disease, clotting disorders, or are currently using other steroids or NSAIDS will also be more likely to experience aspirin poisoning.
While aspirin can be given to dogs, the maximum dose before poisoning occurs is 5 to 10mg per pound of body weight. As you can see, there is a relatively large amount of aspirin in Excedrin; enough to cause significant health problems in a dog.
Caffeine, similarly to chocolate powder, is very poorly tolerated in dogs. They are much more sensitive to its effects than humans are, so even a small amount can be lethal.
It has the capability to damage the central nervous system of a canine, as well as various vital organs such as the heart, lungs, and kidney. As with aspirin, if a dog has pre-existing organ issues then caffeine will exacerbate those diseases and make things even worse.
A lethal dose of caffeine in dogs is thought to be around 70mg per pound of body weight.
Acetaminophen poisoning in dogs occurs in stages, which may progress quickly or more slowly depending on how many Excedrin pills were swallowed.
Stage 1 (0-12 hours after ingestion):
The dog will commonly show initial symptoms such as vomiting, lethargy, labored breathing and panting, brown-colored gums instead of the normal pink, and excessive salivation.
Stage 2 (12-24 hours after ingestion):
In the second stage, symptoms will involve facial and limb swelling, incoordination, convulsions, seizures and coma as liver and hemolysis (red blood cell destruction) progresses. Death is already possible at this stage.
Stage 3 (24+ hours after ingestion):
In the final stage, liver function will be failing. Additional symptoms to those already being experienced above involve a painful abdomen, yellow-tinged eyes, skin and gums (jaundice), and an incoherent mental state.
Aspirin toxicity commonly begins with gastrointestinal irritation.
Minor signs of stomach upset will show at first, such as a loss of appetite, diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal pain.
If a large dose has been ingested (more than 10mg/lb.), aspirin can cause more serious complications such as gastric ulcers, peritonitis, internal bleeding, and possible organ damage.
This will be displayed through symptoms like bloody stools, dehydration, weak heartbeat, and pale gums and tongue. At extremely large doses, organ failure, seizures, coma and death can occur.
Symptoms of Caffeine Poisoning
Caffeine is a stimulant that directly affects the central nervous system.
Most of the toxic symptoms of caffeine result from these stimulant effects, which can kick in as quickly as 30 minutes after ingestion. Symptoms can last for 12 hours or more- making for a miserable experience for your pup.
Other than impacting the central nervous system, caffeine also affects the GI tract and raises blood pressure.
Symptoms of caffeine poisoning can include:
- Irregular heartbeat
- Jitters and tremors
- Vomiting and diarrhea
- Vocalizing or barking a lot
As you can see, there is a huge variety of possible symptoms that can occur when a dog ingests Excedrin.
To make matters worse, the effects tend to compound and amplify, making it that much more dangerous than if they were separate.
Whenever your dog eats potentially dangerous chemicals like acetaminophen and aspirin, it should ideally be taken to the vet as soon as possible for examination and treatment.
Depending on the size of the dog and the amount of chemical compounds eaten, you may be able to get away with simply inducing vomiting and administering activated charcoal if you catch your dog in the act right away.
However, when it swallows a medicine like Excedrin that combines three different toxic ingredients, there’s really no better course of action than taking it directly to a trained professional.
There, the vet will be able to provide the crucial emergency treatment necessary to ensure your dog survives the combined poisoning factors. The sooner that your dog is treated properly after ingestion, the greater the chance of survival- regardless of how much Excedrin was ingested.
Treatment typically involves:
- Blood work, to assess the current level of liver function and red blood cells
- Activated charcoal, to bind as much of the toxins as possible and prevent absorption into the bloodstream
- Placement onto continuous IV fluids, to maintain hydration and support kidney function
- Administration of oral gastroprotectant medication and antacids, to protect the stomach from perforating effects of aspirin and acetaminophen
- Oxygen support, to normalize organ function and aid respiration difficulties
- Bladder catheterization, to prevent the re-absorption of caffeine
- Administration of acetylcysteine and cimetidine, to prevent further liver damage from occurring
- Administration of Vitamin C, to help to eliminate acetaminophen
Dogs may need to be hospitalized, generally for 2 to 4 days. Prognosis depends heavily on how quickly treatment is sought out, and death resulting from liver failure despite treatment is still possible.
After your dog is able to go home, GI protectants should be continued for at least 2 weeks while the stomach heals, and only a bland, easy-to-digest diet of lean boiled chicken and rice should be fed.
You may have to take your dog back for lab tests from time to time to see how its liver and kidney are recovering. If it makes a full recovery, no long-term treatments will be needed.
However, in cases where organs have become permanently damaged, prolonged management will be necessary to keep your dog healthy.
While acetaminophen can sometimes be prescribed for canine use to relieve fever and pain, it should never be given on your own without a consultation with your vet. Most cases of acetaminophen poisoning occur when it is given by owners without checking with a professional first.
If it is prescribed by your vet, the dosage recommended will most likely range from 5 to 7.5mg per pound of body weight, up to three times daily. If giving the medication for more than 5 days, it should only be dosed twice per day.
The prescription should be completed entirely, even if it looks like your dog is feeling better. However, if it develops or shows any adverse side effects, stop dosing immediately and contact your vet.
Remember, acetaminophen is not something to be trifled with when it comes to dogs. It can result in death, and even if your dog survives it may have to take medication for the rest of its life to mitigate the damage suffered.
Always make sure that your medicines are stored safely away in a high shelf or locked cupboard, where your dog won’t be able to reach it when you aren’t around.
There are much better options out there for dog pain relief that don’t involve the use of risky medications like acetaminophen and aspirin.
Natural options that don’t rely on medication include:
- Massage therapy
- Exercise and dietary improvement
- Weight control
Some food and supplements also have the natural capability to relieve certain types of pain, such as fish oil, glucosamine, collagen, turmeric, and chondroitin sulfate. The biggest advantage of these is that the side effects are either non-existent or minimal.
If stronger medication is needed, there are vet-approved options that are both safer and more effective than acetaminophen. Medications that are commonly prescribed include Gabapentin, Rimadyl, Prednisone, and Tramadol.
Your vet will be able to decide which medicine is the most suitable for a particular condition or situation.
If you discover that your dog has eaten Excedrin, you need to take it to the vet immediately.
This is not an exaggeration.
The combination of the 3 toxic ingredients of acetaminophen, aspirin, and caffeine can cause major, compounded problems in a dog. If left untreated, damage could occur to the central nervous system, blood cells and organs- resulting in eventual failure, and death.
A vet will be able to provide prompt, appropriate treatment, administering IV fluids, blood work, and effective medication as needed. It’s important to be aware, however, that even if your dog is treated it may still suffer permanent organ deterioration.
That’s why it’s so important to keep Excedrin far, far away from your dog where it’s adorable paws and inquisitive nose can never reach.
Heather Abraham is a professional blogger who owns two dogs, a cat, a parrot, and a leopard gecko. She has a connection with animals since she was a child. She shares her love for all pet breeds and provides information on pet food, toys, medications, beds, and everything else.
She is committed to learning about the internal workings of animals. Her work permits her to work closely with knowledgeable vets and obtain practical expertise in animal care. When she is not working, her love of animals continues in her writing. Her goal is to educate and uplift readers who also have a passion for animals through her writing.