Q. Is there anything besides aspirin I can get without a prescription for my older dog? She has arthritis.

A. Stop giving your dog aspirin. Although veterinarians have recommended its use for decades, peer-reviewed studies have linked the use of aspirin in dogs to gastric ulcers. 

Now, to your question. Yes, you can help your arthritic dog without prescription medication — but I don’t recommend that you try to help without at least reviewing all the tools at your disposal. That’s why my biggest recommendation is that you take your dog to your veterinarian for a thorough checkup, including bloodwork that will help to determine what non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), if any, your dog can handle. While I know you prefer to avoid prescription medications at this point, you do need to know and understand all pain management options in order to make informed decisions on your pet’s care.

Discuss with your veterinarian how to relieve your pet’s pain. The focus of these discussions, beyond any prescription your veterinarian can provide, will likely be two areas: weight loss and supplements.

Fight the fat: More than half of all pets seen by veterinarians are overweight or obese. We veterinarians traditionally have had a difficult time bringing this matter up with pet owners, because it’s a sensitive topic. When you tell someone a dog or cat is fat, the criticism is often taken very personally, especially if the pet owner (or the veterinarian!) is overweight as well. In recent years, though, we veterinarians have begun to meet this problem head-on, because the simple truth is that when we ignore it we’re not doing our jobs. Fat is linked to chronic health conditions, and arthritis is one of them. The more excess weight those joints are carrying, the worse it will be for you pet.

If you do nothing but work with your veterinarian to get your pet to a proper weight, you may not need to do anything more. If your veterinarian is reluctant to bring up the subject, bring it up yourself and ask if your pet’s weight is healthy. Keeping your pet at an ideal body weight is, without a doubt, the number one thing you can do to improve the quality of her life and extend her lifespan. If you need another reason to trim your pet, how about the money you’ll save on treatment? It can be considerable.

Boost the body’s power: I’ve written about “nutraceuticals” before, and I’ll likely write about them again. I am constantly recommending them to pet owners and giving them to my own pets — and I take them myself. For a dog with arthritis, you’ll likely get a recommendation for glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate combined with omega fatty acids; you can find these products competitively priced at many retailers once your veterinarian provides you with guidance on the proper dosage and which products he or she recommends. There are also foods and treats that have these ingredients, as well as therapeutic diets with higher levels of nutraceuticals available from your veterinarian, that are designed to help.

Finally, don’t dismiss the options only your veterinarian can provide. While NSAIDs, like any medication, are not without risk, when used with proper care under the guidance of a veterinarian, they can be game-changers in terms of improving quality of life. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration offers an excellent pamphlet that explains the risks and benefits; it’s available for free from your veterinarian or can be downloaded from the FDA here. I have also personally seen near miraculous results in dogs who have been given stem-cell therapy which we’ll be hearing a lot more about in the years to come.

It all starts with a trip to your veterinarian, so please make that appointment today. Your dog is counting on you.