Pet Pill Warning!

Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005

Dr. Dolittle Drug Plan

By Charles Downey
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Michael Smith

Driven by the high cost of healthcare, more people are treating themselves with veterinary drugs untested on humans.

Oct. 22, 2001 -- After Cheryl Burnett's dentist treated her infected tooth with penicillin, Burnett, who owns a pet store in Irwin Lake, Calif., got an idea. The next time a tooth acted up, she bypassed her dentist and took penicillin intended for fish.

"Because I had been prescribed penicillin in the past, I figured it was OK," Burnett says.

Burnett isn't alone. While farmers have been taking horse pills and rubbing udder-softening lotion on their callused hands for years, city dwellers too have begun visiting their local pet and feed stores -- or logging onto the Internet -- to buy medications meant for animals and save some money in the process.

In fact, the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association reports that annual sales of all pet products have jumped 35% in the last five years -- a figure they say is well above the needs of the animal population.

But while this may be good news for the makers of veterinary medications, experts are becoming concerned. Using drugs intended for animals, they say, can lead to serious consequences.

Cheaper Drugs

"Some consumers are looking for stronger, cheaper drugs, so they turn to preparations intended for animals," says Greg Thompson, PharmD, of the University of Southern California's pharmaceutical information center. "The danger is many of these products have never been tested for safety in humans."

Many drugs sold for animal use are prepared in different concentrations and may be less pure than those marketed for people. And while no one knows yet whether Burnett suffered any ill effects, the improper use of a drug as familiar as penicillin can cause side effects and contribute to the spread of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. But antibiotics are hardly the only drugs intended for animals being snapped up by humans.

"We recently had a case where a bodybuilder was taking Equipoise (boldenone), a steroid designed to build muscle in horses," says Thompson. "He was potentially damaging his kidneys and contributing to liver damage." Though Equipoise is still on the market, veterinarians rarely recommend it for horses because it makes them high-strung and can weaken their bones.

Other biggest sellers in pet and feed stores are dimethyl sulfoxide, or DMSO, and methylsulfonylmethane, or MSM. Both are promoted on the Internet as remedies for arthritis and other ailments -- even though MSM has never been tested in humans and DMSO may cause vision problems.

Hazardous Options

While some people use animal medications because they are cheaper and easier to get than prescription drugs, others are seeking altered states of mind. Two popular -- but illegal -- hallucinogens, phencyclidine, which is known on the streets as PCP, or angel dust, and ketamine, or Special K, got their starts as animal tranquilizers.

"Ketamine is so highly desired as an illicit hallucinogen, it must be stored under lock and key," says Dean Scoggins, DVM, professor of equine medicine at the University of Illinois. "Criminals often break into veterinary offices and trucks to steal it."

Some people pretend to be animal owners to get products they couldn't otherwise lay their hands on. In some states, including California, needles and syringes can be obtained legally only if the buyer signs a statement saying the items will be used on animals only.

Another hazard comes from accidental usage; veterinary drugs are rarely packaged in childproof containers. There has been at least one report of a toddler who died after taking acepromazine prescribed for the family Doberman. Acepromazine is a relative of the antipsychotic drug Thorazine.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Center for Veterinary Medicine, no governmental body tracks crossover use of animal preparations. However, the American Association of Poison Control Centers in Washington, D.C., reports that in 1998, 3,702 people were poisoned by veterinary drugs.

Still, such problems are unlikely to keep people from treating pet stores as pharmacies. "The cost of medical treatment has gone through the roof," says Burnett. "Many of us without a lot of money feel we have no choice."

Charles Downey is a journalist, magazine writer, and content provider who frequently writes about medicine and early childhood development. He has written for the New York Times Syndicate, Reader's Digest, Playboy, McCall's, Woman's Day, Boys' Life, and many other publications.

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