From aspirin to antacids, we take it for granted that there are dozens of medications readily available for purchase without a prescription. The familiarity of these products in everyday life implies a degree of safety when used properly, and it is not a large stretch to assume that they are similarly safe in pets. But cats and dogs are not furry little people, and while some of these products can be used in specific situations, they were not designed with the unique biology of our pets in mind, and come with surprising dangers.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are easily the most common over- the-counter toxicity seen in pets. These drugs are all relatives of Aspirin, and include Tylenol, Advil and Aleve, among others. Dogs usually become poisoned when they get into an entire bottle, but other cases are due to deliberate administration by well-intentioned owners. Some of these drugs have a very narrow dosing range, made even smaller by the tiny size of most pets. Just to make things even more confusing, many people don’t realize that these are all different drugs that come in widely varying doses, so “two tablets of aspirin or Advil or something” can mean anything from mild stomach upset to kidney damage, leaving veterinarians to puzzle over how aggressively the patient needs to be treated.
Cats get a special mention when talking about NSAIDs. Their livers work very differently than ours do, and they are unable to safely process and eliminate these compounds. While it may seem sensible to give a Tylenol to a cat that’s in pain before taking him to the vet, it only serves to add insult to injury. This entire class of medication should be considered outright poison to cats unless explicitly advised otherwise.
Antihistamines are another common sight on store shelves, and most of us have probably taken a few to combat seasonal allergies or a nasty bug bite. This class is fairly safe in general, but its packaging can lead to dangerous confusion. Benadryl is, perhaps, the best known brand of antihistamine, and many pet owners are familiar with using it in itchy dogs. But that brand name is also applied to a variety of cough syrups that may contain additional medications, some of which can be dangerous in pets. Even if you’ve used these products with your animals many times before, it’s always worth double-checking that you’ve picked up the right box.
It’s a common assumption that “natural” products are inherently safer, but they come with concerns as well. As alternative treatments become more popular, so do the side-effects of using them in pets. Tea tree oil, for instance, is used commonly to soothe minor skin infections. And in small amount, it’s generally tolerated well by dogs. But cases of severe toxicity (usually vomiting and tremors) are growing more common as pet owners try using them to treat more severe and generalized skin disease.
There are far too many over-the-counter products to cover individually, but I hope these examples illustrate the point. While the scrapes and sniffles of everyday human life can be made more bearable by non-prescription therapies, they are not always intended for similar use in our pets. Some require careful dosing, and others simply shouldn’t be used at all. It’s always worth giving your veterinarian a call before administering new medication to a pet, no matter how safe and simple it might seem at the time.
Dr. Mike Fietz is a small animal veterinarian at Georgetown Veterinary Hospital. He received his veterinary degree from Cornell University in 2003 and has lived in Charlottesville since.