Using Over-the-Counter Medications in Pets

We treat our pets like family - taking them along on our vacations, sharing a bit of our food with them - so why wouldn't we treat them with over-the-counter (OTC) human medications, as well? The answer is just that dogs and cats are not small furry humans. Their physiology, while similar to ours in many ways, differs significantly in how they metabolize medication. In fact, this even varies between cats and dogs. So, while some OTC medications are safe to use, there are many more that can be deadly. The following guide is a short outline of which OTC medications are safe, and which should be avoided. Always consult your veterinarian before giving any drugs not prescribed for your pet.

Disclaimer: The guide below is meant to be just that - a guide. If your pet is experiencing any health problems, it is highly recommended that you call your veterinarian. They can advise you as to which medications to use at what dose, and whether your animal needs to be seen as something more serious. DO NOT treat your pet with any non-prescribed medication without first consulting with your veterinarian. In many cases, a simple phone call can allow them to help you without the necessity of bringing your dog or cat to the animal hospital.

Anti-inflammatory drugs. While most people think nothing of popping a few ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) tablets at the first sign of pain, the majority of human anti-inflammatories are not safe for pets. Dogs can be given baby aspirin, but all other anti-inflammatories should be avoided. Cats lack an enzyme that allows their bodies to process aspirin, so it is not safe for cats and can become rapidly toxic. Ibuprofen and naproxen (Aleve) can cause severe stomach ulcers, kidney damage, and liver damage in dogs and cats, and Tylenol can cause anemia and liver damage. Learn what can you give a dog for constipation and if you think your dog or cat is painful, it is best to make an appointment with your veterinarian, who can prescribe pain medications tailored to your pet's physiology. 

Antacids. Should your dog or cat require an antacid, magnesium hydroxide (Milk of Magnesia) can be given. Aluminum hydroxide (Maalox) can be given to dogs but should be avoided in cats. If your dog or cat is frequently vomiting or refuses food, you should call your veterinarian for further advice.

Anti-diarrheals. Most pets have diarrhea at least once in their lives. Usually, it is due to a rapid change in their diet, stress, or dietary indiscretion (the nice way to say that the dog got into the garbage can). Kaolin-pectin (Kaopectate) can be given to cats and dogs. Bismuth salicylate (Pepto-Bismol) can be given to dogs but should be avoided in cats. Bismuth salicylate is very similar to aspirin and therefore cannot be properly metabolized by cats. Loperamide (Imodium) can also be given to dogs, but not to cats. As with vomiting, if diarrhea is occurring frequently or accompanied by other signs of illness, such as vomiting, lethargy, or disinterest in food, you should call your veterinarian. Also, if your pet is a young puppy (less than a year old), you should call your veterinarian as soon as possible if you observe frequent diarrhea, as this can be a symptom of parvovirus. Parvovirus can be deadly if left untreated and is very contagious to other puppies.

Antihistamines. Lots of dogs and cats have allergies, just like their humans. There are several OTC antihistamines that are very safe and can help if your pet is experiencing itching or upper respiratory symptoms. Diphenhydramine (Benadryl), clemastine (Contac) and chlorpheniramine (Chlor-Trimeton) can all be given to both dogs and cats. However, cats are not as susceptible to the effects of these drugs, so you may not see much of an improvement in their symptoms.

Cough suppressants. Robitussin DM can be given to dogs; however, cough can be a sign of something more serious, like heartworm disease, heart failure, or bronchitis. A persistent cough or one that is accompanied by other symptoms of illness should be investigated.

Emetics. If your dog or cat eats something that it shouldn't, you can avoid surgery or treatments by inducing vomiting within 30 minutes of the episode. However, and this cannot be stressed enough, it can be VERY dangerous to do this without consulting Poison Control or a veterinarian. If they have eaten something caustic or sharp (like a needle), induction of vomiting is contraindicated.

H2 inhibitors. Anti-ulcer medications can be helpful in some cases of gastric distress. Cimetidine (Tagamet), famotidine (Pepcid) and ranitidine (Zantac) can all be given to both dogs and cats.

Laxatives. Metamucil can be added to pets' food to aid in passing feces. Other OTC laxatives are not recommended for use in pets. While an enema can sometimes be very helpful in easing constipation, it is probably best left to your veterinarian to administer one, as they are messy and most animals will not stand still for one. Phosphate-containing enemas can be deadly to cats. Also, be sure that your pet is truly constipated. A urinary blockage, which is a medical emergency, can often be mistaken for constipation, especially in cats that strain in the litterbox.

Topical medications. Generally, topicals should be avoided, since most animals will readily lick them off of any area they can reach. If your dog or cat has a wound, the best treatment is just keeping it clean with a mild soap (Dawn or Ivory) and water. If the wound is deep, bleeding heavily, or shows signs of infection (redness, swelling, pus), call your veterinarian.