Vet Blog

4 Q&A’s About Self Medicating Your Pets

September 20, 2015

Why what's good for you isn't always good for your pet.

Common over the counter pain relievers like Tylenol or ibuprofen send most "humans" on a road to recovery. However, this is NOT the case for a pet. Let's weigh in on the problems caused by pet owners "self-medicating" their pets.

Why Can't Dogs And Cats Be Given Over-The-Counter Human Pain Medications?

Answer: Two fatal problems exists when dogs and cats are given human pain medication like aspirin, Tylenol, and ibuprofen.

First, most human medications are dosed for an adult human. Very few dogs and no domestic house cats weigh as much as an adult human. Therefore, giving an adult dose to a pet is a critical overdose error.

Second, cats and dogs are not humans. Their metabolism differs from ours in significant ways. Cats, for example, cannot metabolize acetaminophen (the active ingredient in Tylenol). Tylenol exposure can be fatal to cats because acetaminophen eliminates the ability of red blood cells to carry oxygen to the rest of the body. This causes a death similar to suffocation.

Do Pets Respond To Aspirin In The Same Way?

Answer: Dogs can take aspirin in low doses; however, there are much more effective pain relievers for dogs that are also safer. Always discuss administering aspirin with your veterinarian before a dose is given.

A dog that chews up a bottle of ibuprofen, for example, may seem fine for a day or two. But then severe stomach ulceration and kidney failure may start. A pet's prognosis is much worse and a hospital stay and subsequent cost are greater if the owner waits until their dog shows clinical signs of ibuprofen ingestion.

What Kind Of Organ Damage Can These Human Medications Cause When Ingested By Pets?

Answer: Pets can have significant even life-threatening kidney damage from ingesting human medications without ever showing any outward signs of trouble. Pets with kidney failure can have a decreased amount of urine, an increased amount of urine or it can appear to be normal. Sometimes the kidneys are just getting rid of excess water in kidney failure and not removing waste products. When a build-up of waste occurs, this waste becomes toxic.

Blood tests to show if damage occurred are crucial. This is why. When a pet's blood values are elevated, at least 50 percent of the kidneys are likely damaged, something an owner wouldn't know without blood tests. This is particularly true with cats. Unfortunately, when pets start to show symptoms of kidney failure (vomiting, loss of appetite, abnormal urination), at least 75 percent of the kidneys are likely damaged.

In some cases, with supportive care, the remaining healthy kidney tissue can improve in function and return to a level capable of sustaining life. Obviously, the greater the damage, the less chance the healthy tissue has of "regenerating."

Pets can also experience liver failure, intestinal ulcers, or bleeding disorders from some of these medications.

Are There Antidotes?

Answer: Sadly, there usually are not. Most of the time we do what is called "supportive care."

Because most of these medications do not have a specific antidote, we treat the symptoms or side effects, which often can be as dangerous as the main effect the medication has on the body.

Supportive care focuses on eliminating the toxin from the body as soon as possible to decrease the negative effects and quite often diluting the substance in the body with IV fluids.

Supportive care, if started as soon as possible, often has a good outcome for most accidental ingestions. It can be EXTREMELY helpful if we can get the pet to vomit up an intact pill (beware though, not all toxicities benefit from vomiting. Some toxicities are actually made worse when you induce vomiting).

Waiting to see how the pet does overnight usually causes much more heartache than prompt treatment.

The best treatment is EARLY treatment. If your pet consumes over-the-counter drugs call your veterinarian immediately.

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