It is not unusual to overhear a conversation where informal advice is given as to what medicine to give your pets for so-called common ails. After all, we live in an age when information is readily available and time is limited, so we often treat ourselves for minor illnesses with over-the-counter (OTC) drugs. You only go to the doctor when you are seriously sick, right? Unfortunately, many of these conversations end with: “And if your pet isn’t better in a few days, you can always go to the vet.”
Why is human meds a no-no?
Veterinarians often see patients who have been treated with OTC drugs who end up in life-threatening situations, sometimes fatal or with irreversible damage. We have to ask ourselves, what is the cost?
Human and veterinary drugs are, in essence, the same. Scientifically they look the same on paper, and they alternate body functions in similar ways. That’s where it ends. Human and veterinary medicine is applied in completely different ways; they are even different entities by law. Millions are spent in research to register a drug for veterinary purposes to ensure it is safe and sound to use in different species of animals. As veterinarians we do, however, use some human drugs that are not registered for animals under very specific circumstances (extra-label use).
Human OTC drugs are regularly available at home, but using them severely overdoses our pets, especially when they are small. Even if the dose were right, severe side effects can be seen; in an overdose it might be lethal. Each species has a unique physiology – what is safe to use in a dog can for instance be lethal in a horse. Cats are especially susceptible due to a reduced capacity of the liver to metabolise certain drugs, making them exceptionally vulnerable.
What is the influence on your vet’s work?
Common OTC drugs that can cause severe harm are pain and anti-inflammatory drugs, especially paracetamol in cats, anti-histamines, antacids and cough mixtures. The harsh reality is that we often self-medicate our pets to make ourselves feel better! These drugs usually only alleviate symptoms, therefore not solving the primary problem at all. Symptoms are likely to return once medication is stopped, with no improvement in the quality of life for our pets. For your vet it is almost impossible to diagnose any condition if all the symptoms are masked by medicine.
It is not only OTC drugs that can pose a threat to the health of your pet. Many people don’t know that coffee, chocolate, electrolytes, multivitamins and sweets with xylitol (artificial sweetener) can cause severe, life-threatening or irreversible damage to their pets, whether it be in the short or long term. There is no substitute for a good-quality veterinary-approved diet, providing all the nutritional needs a healthy pet in any stage of life may need.
Safety first – consult your vet
When faced with the choice to use OTC drugs in your pet, rather consult your local vet on the matter. As these situations often happen after hours, it is in your pet’s best interest to phone your local vet’s after-hours number. Should it be a life-threatening emergency, you can react promptly; if not, most vets will be more than happy to give advice as to what at hand can be given to alleviate discomfort, until a consult can be done at an appropriate time. This is a win-win situation for pet, owner and veterinarian. If OTC drugs have been given, always take the container with you when consulting your vet.
Responsible pet ownership is to do what is right for our pets, no matter what the circumstances.