Safe Or Not Safe: OTC Medications And Cats

Can any over-the-counter drugs be used to treat cats?

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If you think your cat is sick, you want to help, but beware using over-the-counter medications unless you have veterinary guidance. Basnick/iStock/Thinkstock

In these glorious days of the Internet, everyone can be an expert on anything — or at least, we think we can be. I was reminded of this recently by my carpenter. I was trying to tell him how to create this weathered-wood look I had found on a DIY site — and he reminded me that he had 40 years of experience “on the ground,” and it wasn’t that simple.

This spills over into our healthcare — both for our pets and for ourselves. Sometimes online information is very helpful, but it can also have sad, and even tragic, endings, as in the case of a kitty we will call Fluffy.

OTC Drug Dangers Without Veterinary Supervision

Poor Fluffy had been sick for a week or so. It had started with vomiting, which a quick Internet search told the owner was probably from hairballs, and she should give the cat Vaseline, which she did. Shortly thereafter, Fluffy started having some trouble breathing and was still vomiting. Another search told her that Fluffy probably had asthma and inhalers could be used to treat this, so the owner started using the husband’s inhaler (which happened to be designed to treat COPD, not asthma). Fluffy wasn’t eating well, and she believed the kitty was in pain. Once again she turned to the Internet, which suggested some pain medication: They chose to give her Tylenol. The vomiting was getting worse, and now the cat wasn’t using the litter box either, so they gave her some Miralax and added in aspirin (because the Internet said you could give aspirin and Tylenol together). By the time I saw the kitty, she was so weak she could barely stand. What may have started out as a simple case of gastrointestinal upset was now a full-blown case of renal failure with aspiration pneumonia. Sadly, her owners could not afford care for her (which was the main reason they relied on Dr. Google in the first place), and she died within hours.

Is There A Place For OTC Medications For Cats?

These owners meant well and were devastated that they probably killed their cat. The Internet is a wonderful place, and everyone should educate themselves as conditions arise — but it is also a dangerous place where misinformation abounds. Evaluate the information you find with a critical eye, and always — ALWAYS — run illnesses and proposed over-the-counter treatments past a veterinarian before giving medications to your pet. What may be appropriate for one animal may not be for another with different underlying conditions. Medications that are OK for dogs may kill cats. There are a lot of variables to factor in, which is why it takes pharmacists six years to graduate school!

This article is meant to give only some general guidelines about over-the-counter medications. It is not in any way meant to help diagnose, treat or even indicate that a medication is safe for any given patient or condition. Remember, if you are considering giving medication to your pet, this means your pet is sick. Sick animals should always be evaluated by a veterinarian for the best recommended care. And a veterinarian must always be consulted before giving any over-the counter medication to a pet with any health concerns, or who may be pregnant.

Review Of Some OTC Medications

Doses vary between species, as well as between individuals within a species. What is safe to give your 45-year-old husband isn’t necessarily safe to give your 2-year-old toddler, nor your 10-year-old cat. The dose for a 15-year-old, 5-pound cat will differ from that given to a 2-year-old, 12-pound cat. Always consult your veterinarian before administering any medication — OTC or otherwise.

Over-the-counter medications sometimes chosen by owners may include the following. These are listed in alphabetical order along with my brief opinion on the safety of each for cats in general. This information is for educational purposes, not for diagnosis or a recommendation for treatment. Only your veterinarian can say what is appropriate for your cat.

Allegra (fexofenadine): An antihistamine sometimes used as part of an allergy-control treatment plan. Caution indicated if any kidney damage is present (blood work recommended). Side effects may include sedation and central nervous system changes, as well as gastrointestinal upset.

Green light — Generally considered safe to use.

Artificial tears (a variety of products available): Used commonly as tear replacements. Side effects may include burning/stinging of the eyes, redness, eye pain or blurry vision.

Yellow light — Unlikely to cause damage, but may delay the diagnosis of an underlying eye problem (such as a corneal ulcer), which should have immediate treatment. Not recommended for use unless prescribed by a veterinarian.

Aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid): Used as a fever reducer, pain medication and “blood thinner.” Side effects are many and include drug interactions, nausea, vomiting, reduced appetite, gastrointestinal bleeding and increased acid levels in the blood stream. Aspirin lasts approximately 30 hours in the cat.

Yellow light — There are some indications for aspirin in animals, however, the side effects often outweigh the benefits and aspirin should generally only be used under the direction of a veterinarian.

Benadryl (diphenhydramine): An antihistamine often used as part of an allergy-treatment plan, to help alleviate motion sickness and as a mild sedative. Should be used with care with patients with glaucoma, bladder/prostate disease, hypertension, heart or thyroid disease and COPD. Side effects include: sedation, dry mouth, urinary retention and, rarely, vomiting/diarrhea.

Green light — Generally considered safe to use.

Claritin (loratadine): Antihistamine used as part of an allergy-control plan. Little information is available about its use in pets. It is likely similar to Allegra.

Green light — Generally considered safe to use.

Cough syrups (variety available): Used primarily to control the signs of coughing caused by respiratory disease. Side effects are varied, depending on the preparation used.

Red light — The cause of the respiratory disease should always be diagnosed in cats before treatment is started. Heart failure can also cause coughing, which is something you would want to diagnose sooner rather than later.

Glucosamine (variety of ingredients, often mixed with chondroitin): Used as an adjunct treatment for joint pain and arthritis. Minimal side effects, including occasional gastrointestinal disturbance.

Green light — Generally considered safe for use.

L-lysine: An amino acid supplement often used in conjunction with herpes-viral control agents. Minimal to no side effects noted, however, there is minimal data to support its use.

Green light — Administration is generally considered safe, although efficacy is unknown.

Miralax (polyethylene glycol 3350): Commonly used as a laxative. Side effects include cramping, nausea and electrolyte imbalances.

Green light — Generally considered safe to use, but if long-term use is needed, veterinary advice should be sought.

Pedialyte (variety of ingredients): Commonly used as an electrolyte supplement.

Green light — Generally considered safe for short-term use, but the underlying cause of the electrolyte deficiency should be diagnosed, particularly if vomiting/diarrhea is present for longer than 24 hours.

Pepcid (famotidine): Commonly used to reduce gastric acid production. Side effects include headache, dry mouth, gastrointestinal effects and bone marrow changes. Must be used with care in animals with kidney disease.

Yellow light — Generally considered safe for use, but the underlying cause for vomiting/excessive gastric acid secretion should be diagnosed.

Pepto-Bismol (bismuth subsalicylate): Used to treat diarrhea. Contains aspirin, which has the same concerns noted as above.

Yellow light — Should likely not be used unless under the direction of a veterinarian in very specialized circumstances (such as during treatment for the bacterium Helicobacter pylori).

Prilosec (omeprazole): Used as a gastric acid reducer. Concerns similar to those of Pepcid, listed above.

Yellow light — May be appropriate for some animals in some circumstances.

Tylenol (acetaminophen): Pain reliever. Not commonly used in veterinary medicine, and not recommended due to the severity and number of side effects.

Red light — Do not administer.

Tagamet (cimetidine): Similar uses and concerns as for Pepcid. May interfere with other drugs the animal is taking.

Yellow light — Generally considered safe for use.

Zyrtec (cetirizine): Antihistamine used as part of an allergy-control plan. Little information available in pets, likely similar to Allegra.

Green light — Generally safe to use.

The world of over-the-counter medications can be overwhelming, and it is important to realize that a drug that is safe in people (or even dogs, for that matter) may not be safe to give your cat. However, with a little leg work and some guidance from your veterinarian, some of these OTC products can be safely administered.

When in doubt, however, always hold off on using OTC medications and wait for expert advice. The loss of Fluffy was one patient too many killed by Dr. Google. Don’t let your cat become a victim, as well.

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Cats · Health and Care