Doctor holding acupuncture needles

Q. A friend of mine said her old dog died after the vet prescribed a pain medication. Now I’m scared to give my dog this medication for his arthritis. Is there a natural remedy?

A. Before I get into a discussion about prescription pain medication, I need to clear up some misunderstandings about “natural” remedies. First among them: The mistaken idea that they are always a safer alterative than a prescription product. Not far behind: The false notion they work as well (or even better) than what your veterinarian prescribes or recommends.

What people tend to forget is that before the days of modern medicine, humans died young, many from diseases easily prevented or treated today, and that their lives weren’t all that pleasant by the standards we enjoy now. The same is true of dogs and cats: Even those cherished and well-cared-for pets didn’t live long before accidents or disease took them from their owners.

Make the Best Choice for Your Pet

There are many elements of what’s called “complementary and alternative medicine” that have been proven effective by scientific standards. I am not alone in using or recommending such things as acupuncture in my practice. But many other “natural” remedies can not be scientifically supported: These are at best a waste of money and at worse a threat to your pet’s health.

So, now about your pet’s pain. There are indeed things you can do to treat your dog's arthritis without using a prescription pain medication, such as providing soft beds (warmed in the winter), glucosamine supplements and regular moderate exercise, and getting your pet down to a proper weight. But if these measures are not enough, you do need to discuss effective prescription pain control with your veterinarian.

You have to know I am very sorry that your friend’s dog died, but as a veterinarian, I would want to know the context before I blame the medication. Was the pet screened for disease before the medication was prescribed, and monitored after? While diagnostics are recommended, we veterinarians too often find that people can’t or won’t allow them for financial reasons. Did the owner know what to look for in terms of problems once the medication was started, and did she call her veterinarian for advice?

NSAIDs Have a Good Track Record for Pain — and Safety

While no medication, however helpful, is without the potential for side effects (including very serious ones), the nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) available from your veterinarian have high marks for safety — if recommended precautionary protocols are followed.

I know a little something about chronic pain, thanks to a chronic neurological condition, and I can tell you it’s a miserable way to spend a life. And yet so many pets are in such misery because their owners have “heard” that NSAIDs are deadly.

Don’t do this to your pet. Please make an appointment today with your veterinarian. Discuss all your options and all the precautions, and work with your veterinarian to ease your pet’s suffering while minimizing the potential for side effects. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has an excellent publication on NSAIDs, and I encourage you to download it (it’s free), read it and discuss it with your veterinarian.

Bottom line: Don’t let fear keep you from easing your pet’s pain. Work with your veterinarian to find what's best for your pet, while keeping the risks as low as possible.