Human medications pose pet health risks

Accidental pet poisonings in 2012 increased 7% over the previous year, according to the ASPCA’s Animal Poison Control Center, and human medications are often the culprit. Insurance claims for toxin exposure and ingestion submitted to PetPlan averaged $465 after deductibles were met. To prevent accidental pet poisonings, veterinarians recommend storing medications properly and taking them when pets aren’t around. “Assume anything a kid can get into, pets can get into,” said veterinarian Kevin Fitzgerald. The Wall Street Journal

Annie, the Berlin family’s three-year-old Cavachon, has always been alert to the possibility of dropped food, not least thanks to living with three kids under the age of 15.

So when Josh Berlin, 48, went to the kitchen to take two Tylenol for a headache last August, Annie was hot on his heels. Shaking out gel capsules from the bottle, Mr. Berlin accidentally dropped three from his hand to the floor.

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‘Anything on the kitchen floor, she thinks it’s fair game,’ says Beverly Hills, Calif., pet owner Ronna Berlin of her family’s three-year-old Cavachon, Annie, pictured at home.

“Before I could do anything, she had lapped one up,” he recalls. Knowing that Tylenol’s active ingredient, acetaminophen, is toxic to pets, the Berlins rushed Annie from their Beverly Hills, Calif., home to their local veterinarian, who referred her to a nearby animal hospital. There she received an intravenous neutralizing agent and was kept overnight for observation.

Cases of accidental pet poisonings are on the rise. A new study from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals reports that its Animal Poison Control Center, based in Urbana, Ill., handled more than 180,000 calls about poisonous substances in 2012, up 7% from the previous year. The problem might be bigger than those numbers suggest, since many pet owners—like the Berlins—head straight to the vet instead of calling a hotline, says the center’s medical director, Tina Wismer.

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When Siamese cat Lilly of Doylestown, Pa., began vomiting blood, her vet  suspected she accidentally swallowed her owner’s blood-thinning medication.

Human medications and supplements are some of the most common toxins ingested by pets. Prescription medicines for humans have accounted for the majority of the ASPCA center’s calls for the past five years, with a 2% increase last year to more than 25,200 calls. Over-the-counter medications and supplements ranked third, up 2.8% to nearly 18,500 calls, after insecticides. Veterinary medications came in fourth, up 5.2% to nearly 10,700 calls.

Based on the ASPCA’s center’s statistics, the fatality rate from accidental poisonings appears to be low, at 0.2% of cases. Dr. Wismer says the center isn’t able to determine the outcome of each call, so that rate could be higher.

Follow-up figures suggest that insecticides and rodenticides are the deadliest household items for pets. But common medicines for humans can also prove lethal, depending on the pet’s weight, the amount consumed and the strength of the toxin. “One acetaminophen will kill a cat,” says Kevin T. Fitzgerald, a veterinarian with VCA Alameda East Veterinary Hospital in Denver.

Symptoms vary by toxin. An amphetamine such as Adderall, used in humans to treat narcolepsy and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, triggers seizures in both dogs and cats. An anti-inflammatory like ibuprofen might result in stomach ulcers or kidney failure, says Jules Benson, vice president of veterinary services for pet insurer Petplan.

Pets’ tastes tend to follow prescription and health trends. In 2012, calls about prescription pain medications jumped 63%; antidepressants 47.5%. “More and more people are on these drugs, and dogs find them on the nightstand,” says Dr. Fitzgerald. And it isn’t always the medication they want in the first place: Prescription bottles can make an attractive chew toy for a bored pet.

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Shakespear, a Basset Hound in Charlotte, N.C., overdosed on pain pills intended for another dog.

There is some evidence, too, that medications have gotten more tempting in recent years. Supplements for joints are often made of beef cartilage or shellfish, and more manufacturers are using gelatin-based soft gels or capsules, says Tod Cooperman, president of ConsumerLab.com, a website that evaluates supplements. A dog’s sweet tooth makes sweetened or flavored human meds attractive. “Our pets have such good noses that even though the bottle is closed, they can smell the stuff,” says Bernadine Cruz, a veterinarian with the Laguna Hills Animal Hospital in Laguna Woods, Calif.

Dogs are more susceptible to accidental poisoning than cats. Labrador Retrievers got into the most trouble last year, accounting for nearly 14,000 calls to the APCC. “Dogs experience the whole world by tasting it,” says Dr. Fitzgerald. “Cats are a little more picky.”

But not immune. Although more than half of the APCC’s 10,000 cat cases in 2012 involved exposure to insecticides and toxic cleaners that cats walked across and then ingested while grooming, there are certain medications—notably, the antidepressant Effexor—that cats will willingly consume, says Dr. Wismer.

Sarah Rothmann, of Charlotte, N.C., suspects that superior sense of smell was what prompted her 10-year-old Basset Hound Shakespear to “counter surf” last August, standing up on his hind legs to paw a bottle of veterinary pain pills off the kitchen island. The intended patient, Woody, another of her six rescued Bassets, was supposed to take half of a chewable, flavored tablet every 12 hours. Shakespear chowed down on eight full tablets in one sitting.

It was the first time Shakespear had surfed for something that wasn’t clearly food. “We have stuff up there on the counter all the time, including medications, and he’s never touched it,” says Ms. Rothmann, 42. After a call to the APCC, Shakespear got a daily dose for a week of human-heartburn medicine Pepcid to prevent stomach irritation from the overdose.

Pet poisonings can be costly. The APCC typically charges $65 for consultations. In 2012, Petplan’s average insurance claim for vet visits associated with accidental poisoning was $465, after a deductible of $50 to $200. Dr. Benson says the company has seen claims as high as $10,000 in more severe cases. And while insurance covers accidents including poisoning, some insurers might not cover a pet that has a track record of eating unsuitable items.

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