Sally, Yes, Rover, No

Back in January, the New York Times ran a column by a physician describing how she almost killed the family dog. The column strikes a sort of rueful tone, but also with an overtone of ‘this is an amusing anecdote,’ something I suspect might not be the case had the dog died because of the doctor’s ineptness. It was a cautionary tale and a reminder that accidental ingestion of human medications is one of the leading reasons for calls to animal poison control hotlines.

Poisoning of any species can turn bad very quickly, but it’s especially bad with animals because they don’t exactly communicate when they’re having early symptoms. You may only become aware of a problem when the animal is already vomiting, seizing, experiencing bloody diarrhea, and slipping into a coma. Even attentive pet guardians miss the early ¬†warning signs of disease because sick animals tend to hide, and this makes it very hard to identify what is going on until it is too late. Especially with poisoning, where you may not immediately connect puking and feeling unwell with that bottle of pills you spilled earlier and thought you cleaned up.

I think there’s some confusion about medications, humans, animals, and appropriate usage, so now is perhaps a good time to spell a few things out, in the hopes of perhaps preventing a few accidental poisoning of furry members of the household. I’m kind of surprised veterinarians don’t hand out pamphlets on this since it’s a common problem and some basic information could prevent a lot of bad accidents. The lack of communication between some veterinarians and pet guardians is a subject of irritation for me, as is the general uncommunicative nature of relationships between people and doctors, like somehow releasing this information would cause the world to end.

So. Many medications can be used interchangeably in humans and animals, including prescription and OTC drugs. (In fact, my vet sometimes sends me to pick up OTC versions of meds because they are cheaper than what she could provide, or sends me to the human pharmacy for the cats’ meds.) You do have to be careful about dosing and flavouring, for safety and palatability reasons. And I would recommend only doing this under veterinary advice so you can get correct dosing recommendations, find out how long you should use the medication, and so forth.

Many prescription medications for humans and animals have identical formulations; I’ve gotten the same pill in different packaging for myself and the cats on at least one occasion. Other drug companies make human and veterinary formulations that differ primarily in fillers and dosing. Think sardine versus cherry flavoured, and lower doses for smaller bodies. Many compounding pharmacies can also make up medications by request, including liquid meds with different flavours depending on the taste of the consumer. (If you like sardines, no judging!) It is generally a good idea to keep human and animal meds separate just to be in the habit, and if you happen to be taking the same medication as a pet, to make sure you track doses and count pills to make sure everyone’s taking what they should be.

Other human medications can be fatal for pets, including OTC drugs. Aspirin, for example, is extremely bad for both cats and dogs. Conversely, some veterinary medications, including antibiotics, are not safe for use in people. Which means it’s a bad idea to give human meds to a pet without checking first[1. Seriously, call your vet, it doesn’t take long, or call an animal poison control hotline for information if you don’t have a regular vet.]. It’s also a good idea to not take medications intended for your pets and vice versa. If you drop pills, as happens to the best of us even without hand tremors, count the pills back in. If there’s a chance a pet ate them, call a poison control centre to find out what to do. The response may be ‘nothing,’ but if it’s a toxic medication, you will be glad you called.

For pregnant individuals of all species, these warnings go double. Some medications harmless in animals are bad news bears for pregnant people and/or fetuses[1. Can anyone say ‘thalidomide’?]. Even when expenses are tight, sharing or swapping medications can be a really bad, and really expensive, idea. Which puts people between a rock and a hard place, I realise. Not everyone can afford to go to a vet, or a doctor, at all times, and thus many people turn towards home remedies and basic care for issues at home.

Which is, I think, a good thing, that a lot of health issues can be dealt with at home and at fairly low cost. It’s just important to do them safely. There are a lot of guidebooks with useful and basic information and it’s also possible to get information from free clinics and hotlines. You can get a vet tech on the line to get basic information about what to do for an animal who is feeling under the weather, usually for free.

As Dr. Epstein pointed out, even having a medical degree doesn’t mean you’re immune from mistakes. A lot of assumptions are made about human and animal physiology and the interchangeability of medications and so forth, and a lot of those assumptions are incorrect, sometimes fatally so. Animals and humans are different, process things differently, have different enzymes and internal structures. Yes, we share a lot of things in common, including sensitivity to the same medications, but it’s not a one to one correspondence.

Be careful out there, animal people.