Our dogs are part of the family. They keep us company, play games with us, and provide emotional support. In other words, they are almost human, so it’s understandable that we reach for human medications when they feel poorly. Before you share the contents of your medicine cabinet with your dog, we need to be clear on whether or not human medications are actually safe for dogs and cats. Nearly 50% of calls to the Pet Poison Helpline involve pets ingesting human medications so this is a very common situation that we encounter.
First and foremost, dogs and cats are not humans and we cannot treat them as if they are. Yes, many medications used in veterinary medicine do cross over into human medicine and vice versa but there are many risks in just assuming we can give our pets exactly what we may take for pain, upset stomach, etc. While it is super easy to just run to the pharmacy and pluck a medication off the shelf, I want to encourage you to not make this the first line of defense when your pet does not feel well.
In case you didn't know, OTC stands for "over the counter,” meaning that no prescription is needed. Luckily, there are lots of drugs that don’t have to abide by the stringent rules of the written prescription. Nonetheless, I feel we need to discuss a few of the most common OTC medications and their indications and contraindications. Before ever giving your pet an OTC medication, ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS consult with your veterinarian first.
NSAID stands for Non Steroidal Anti-inflammatory Drug. A few medications that fall into this drug class include: Aspirin, Advil, Aleve, and Motrin. While these medications are typically safe in people, even one or two pills can cause serious harm to pets. Perhaps the most commonly used one in pets is Aspirin. Almost every single day I speak to multiple pet owners who have been giving their pet Aspirin for pain, arthritis, fever, etc. It has become so commonly used that it is quite scary.
Here are some things to consider when it comes to giving Aspirin. It needs to be mentioned that Aspirin is not just found in pill form. It can also be found in Pepto-Bismol, medications for acne, some shampoos, and make-up. Aspirin is often used for pain management and clot prevention but the side effects can be severe. Side effects can include:
vomiting (bloody vomit)
black, tarry stool
The truth is there are far more appropriate medications used in veterinary medicine to control pain and inflammation in pets. The veterinary approved NSAIDs are typically much safer and have far fewer side effects. Aspirin ranks near the bottom on the list of medications we used to control pain in pets. It should not be the first line for pain management, rather a last resort because of the high risk of side effects.
The active ingredient in Tylenol is called Acetaminophen. While Tylenol is widely used to control pain and reduce fever in humans, it is extremely toxic to pets, especially cats. Cats are almost 10 times more susceptible to Acetaminophen toxicity than dogs. Cats lack certain enzymes in their liver that allows them to metabolize the medication. When ingested, dogs and cats can experience the following:
brown or blue color to the gums
brown color urine
shock and even death
These side effects can have a rapid onset (within 30 minutes). The main toxic effects occur in two forms: liver damage and damage to red blood cells. One of the substances produced when Acetaminophen is broken down will bind to the red blood cells and decrease their ability to carry oxygen to the rest of the body. When the body and vital organs are not receiving adequate oxygen, this can result in serious illness. If you suspect your pet has ingested Tylenol, have them seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Benadryl is an antihistamine that is commonly used in both veterinary and human medicine. Some of its most common indications in veterinary medicine are the treatment of environmental allergies, allergic reactions to insect bites or stings, and pre-treatment of vaccine reactions. It also has some efficacy in the prevention of motion sickness in dogs and as a mild sedative.
While Benadryl is usually considered safe to give in many situations, there are certain situations in which it is not recommended. Benadryl is contraindicated in pets with glaucoma, high blood pressure, or underlying heart disease.
Even though side effects from a Benadryl overdose are usually mild, it is very easy to overdose your pet. The most common mistake I see with pet owners is not knowing how to calculate the appropriate dose. There are countless places to find doses for Benadryl on the internet but often there is information not included in these dosage charts that is quite important.
Let's use the oral liquid Benadryl as an example. I have found numerous dosage charts that will say "Give X amount per this many pounds of body weight". Yes, that seems super easy but the dosage chart is missing a vital component....the concentration of the liquid. The truth is the concentration (how many milligrams per mL) of the liquid Benadryl can vary. If you purchased one concentration and are referring to a dosage chart that is based on a different concentration, you risk giving your pet too little or worse, too much. Always consult with your veterinarian first.
Most people have these medications in their home right now. Here are a few tips to follow to ensure your four-legged loved one does not get their paws on them.
Never leave loose pills in a plastic sandwich bag. The bags are too easy to chew into. Make sure visiting house guests do the same, keeping their medications high up or out of reach.
If you place your medication in a weekly pill container, make sure to store the container in a cabinet out of reach of your pets. Unfortunately, if they get a hold of it, some pets might consider the pill container a plastic chew toy.
Never store your medications near your pet’s medications.
Always check the label on any medication prior to giving it to your pet to ensure you are giving the right medication.
ALWAYS consult with your veterinarian first before giving your pet any medication. This cannot be stressed enough. Prevention is the best medicine!
Published by Dr. Mason Romero, DVM