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Human Medications Draw the Interest of Pets

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Sandy McNamara, a lawyer who lives in suburban St. Louis, came home from work recently to find her cat Toby in the throes of something very bad. He had been vomiting, had diarrhea and was panting excessively.

"I was scared to death," McNamara says. "I suspected that he had gotten into something  but I wasn't sure. I knew I had to call a poison center but I also knew the call would be useless unless I could provide some information. I looked around but couldn't really find a specific cause. I thought maybe Toby had gotten into my stash of chocolate and I also suspected antifreeze poisoning."

The real culprit, however, was McNamara's high blood pressure medicine. She had taken the medicine that morning, then left the lid off. The curious Toby sampled the medication. "It didn't occur to me that my own medicine was responsible."

For several years, human medications have been the number one cause of animal poisonings, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. During 2008, the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center handled more than 140,000 cases of pets exposed to toxic substances, including more than 50,000 calls involving prescription and over-the-counter drugs for humans - painkillers, cold medications, antidepressants and dietary supplements.

Human medications

The high number of poisonings due to human medications displaces traditional sources of animal poisoning: insecticides, people food, rodenticides, veterinary medications, plants, chemical hazards, household cleaners, heavy metals such as lead, and fertilizers.

"It's hard to give a dog a pill, but when a dog discovers one of yours, watch out," laughs Steven Hansen, DVM, a board-certified toxicologist and Senior Vice President of Animal Health Services for the ASPCA. "Plastic pharmaceutical bottles might be childproof but they are not dog-proof. Dogs can crush a prescription bottle in seconds with their teeth."

Another problem are the containers that hold a weekly or more supply of pills. Dogs can get into pill containers easily if it is left out in the open. "Dogs can get into quite a few things in no time at all," says Dr. Hansen. He recommends that human medications be kept as high as possible in a closed container to avoid the curiosity of pets. "Pets can get into cabinets that are low, so high is better," he says. "It's just like dealing with kids. You've got to puppy-proof your home."

Cats are not as likely as dogs to get into human meds. "Cats are typically more careful about what they consume," says Dr. Hansen. "They sometimes get into trouble because a pet parent will purposely give an elderly cat a human pain killer for arthritis. One extra-strength acetaminophen can be deadly to a cat."

It worked for me, why not them?

Another issue regarding human medications ingested by pets occurs when people give them medicines intentionally, thinking they are helping the animal.

"I have clients who think that if the medicine works for them, it can work for their pet," says Karl Jandrey, DVM, associate professor of veterinary medicine at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine. "It's true that there are some medicines that can be taken by both people and pets, but not in the same dosages. A dog or cat is not a person and cannot take the same dose. People should not simply give a pet some of their own medicine without going to an expert."

Dr. Jandrey says that the side effects of human medications generally are known, whether the medication is consumed by a person or animal. "The good news is that many of these issues can be treated with successful outcomes."

Sandy McNamara's cat Toby survived his bout with high blood pressure medication. "I will never leave my medicine out like that again," she promises.

Credit: Reviewed by John A. Bukowski, DVM, MPH, PhD and Susan E. Aiello, DVM, ELS
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