A cure for what ails you might be the kiss of death for your pet.
That may sound like an overdramatization, but according to the ASPCA Poison Control Hotline, human medication ingestion by pets was the number one reason pet owners called in 2020, and more than 50 percent of all calls to The Pet Poison Helpline are in reference to a pet who has consumed medication. As a busy animal emergency hospital, we see our fair share of these cases, and we agree that pets and pills are a popular, but dangerous, combination.
What makes medication ingestion such a big problem for pets?
Pets can be exposed to human medication by intentional administration or accidental ingestion. Concerned pet owners may erroneously reach into their own medicine cabinet to help a painful pet, while curious dogs and cats can find themselves in pharmaceutical peril after chewing on a pill bottle and its contents, or ingesting a tablet found on the floor.
Although veterinarians prescribe some human medications for pets, the dosing and concentration are vastly reduced, making a single pill or tablet of human strength medicine deadly to pets. Dog and cat metabolism also differs greatly from ours, making human medication more potent for them.
The following five human medications are hardly the only toxic ones, but a sample of the most common. Contact your veterinarian immediately if your pet has or may have ingested a medication from these groups.
- Non steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) — These popular pain relievers are found in nearly every household under the names ibuprofen (e.g., Advil, Motrin) and naproxen (e.g., Aleve.) They are also the most commonly reported pet toxicity, according to the Pet Poison Helpline. NSAIDs are extremely dangerous to pets, because they disrupt blood flow to the stomach and kidneys, causing painful bleeding ulcers and kidney damage. Pets can suffer a stomach rupture, and permanent injury to their kidneys, from only a few human NSAID pills or tablets.
- Acetaminophen — Acetaminophen (e.g., Tylenol) is a pain reliever and fever reducer whose action mechanism in humans still confounds scientists. Acetaminophen hits the liver quickly, and creates dangerous by-products. Cats should never be given acetaminophen, because they do not have the liver enzymes to safely break the drug down, and irreversible liver damage and red blood cell changes can occur up to 30 minutes after ingestion. Acetaminophen binds to red blood cells and alters their ability to transport oxygen, changing ruby-red hemoglobin to a muddy brown, impairing tissue and organ oxygenation, and leading to cell, tissue, and organ death.
- Antidepressants — Some antidepressant drugs are prescribed at veterinary doses for cats and dogs with anxieties or phobias, but pets should never be given antidepressant medications without a veterinary prescription, because of significant dosing differences. Antidepressant overdose can cause neurologic signs, such as seizures and tremors, and altered cardiovascular function because of low blood pressure and severe cardiac arrhythmias. Such arrhythmias may be fatal without correction. Antidepressant overdose can also cause lethargy, depression, low blood pressure, vomiting, diarrhea, seizures, and death.
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADD or ADHD) medications — These stimulants may improve human focus, but pets experience agitation, increased heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature. Overdosed dogs and cats may become outwardly restless, pace, and circle. Cats also may become stuporous and stay incredibly still. Left untreated, prolonged high blood pressure can impact the kidneys, and severe cases can be fatal.
- Heart medications — Heart medications, such as calcium channel blockers, beta blockers, and ACE inhibitors, are incredibly dangerous to pets by causing a precipitous drop in blood pressure, slow heart rate or arrhythmia, heart or respiratory failure, and coma. Gastrointestinal, neurologic, and respiratory signs may also be seen. Poor organ oxygenation caused by low blood pressure may cause permanent kidney failure. Heart medication overdose signs can continue for 24 to 96 hours, and may begin as quickly as 15 minutes after ingestion. Your pet needs immediate hospitalization and monitoring if they have ingested any heart medications.
What if my pet has consumed my medication?
If you suspect your pet has consumed any human medication, take the following actions:
- Contact your pet’s veterinarian immediately. Call the Pet Emergency Clinic and Referral Center for after-hours assistance.
- Do not induce vomiting without your veterinarian’s instructions.
- Take all product packaging and pill fragments with you to the veterinary hospital.
- Count the remaining pills to determine how many your pet consumed.
How can I prevent my pet’s accidental ingestion of human medication?
Pets are uncanny at getting into harmful situations, so ensure you:
- Keep all medications in their original bottles, preferably in a lockable box, out of your pet’s reach.
- Keep purses and bags off the floor, or anywhere pets can reach.
- Store your pet’s medications in a separate location, to prevent accidental mix ups.
If you suspect your pet has ingested human medications, vitamins, or supplements of any kind, do not wait. Call your regular veterinarian or contact the Pet Emergency Clinic and Referral Center immediately. Then, follow our instructions to protect your pet from potentially long-term or fatal consequences.