6 Human Medications That Are (Sometimes) Safe for Pets

When you have an upset stomach, you feel pretty confident going to the medicine cabinet and pulling out something that you think will make you feel better, right? It's pretty easy to do that, mainly because you have a pretty good understanding of the cause - maybe a smothered burrito or some exceptionally greasy pork ribs - that is resulting in the effect - a bad case of heartburn.

Sometimes these same medications can help your pet, but because there's often a bit of mystery surrounding why our pets aren't feeling well, this can be problematic. Read on to learn when you can safely use over-the-counter medications, and when you can't, on your pets.

Stomach upset medications

Pepcid AC (famotidine) and Prilosec (omeprazole) are sold over-the-counter for humans with stomach upset due, at least in part, to elevated stomach acid. People commonly have problems with acid reflux, and drugs such as these reduce the volume of stomach acid, thus making the problem less severe.

Pets can benefit from stomach acid reduction in some cases, too; however true acid reflux by itself seems to be rare in dogs. The bottom line is that while a dose of Pepcid AC may improve your pet's symptoms, it's very unlikely to be the absolute fix for what ails him. If your dog or cat is vomiting, there is likely an underlying problem causing it, such as ingesting something disgusting or even toxic, parasites, liver or kidney disease, or a foreign object blocking the intestinal tract.

Probably the most common use of these OTC medications in veterinary medicine is for the management of the gastritis (inflammation in the lining of the stomach) that comes along with chronic kidney disease. Your veterinarian can help you determine whether your pet may benefit from using these medications, if he has this condition.

Pepto-Bismol

Many of us harbor nostalgia for this minty, creamy concoction that we were given when we were a kid with an upset tummy. I even had a friend in college who kept a bottle in his refrigerator and took a swig periodically, ostensibly because he enjoyed the taste but probably also because it reminded him of his mom. Thus the phrase: to each his own.

The makers of this old school medication made lots of hay with commercials depicting an animated rendering of its creamy goodness enveloping a stomach, along with the words, “Coats. Soothes. Protects.” It turns out that the active ingredient in Pepto is salicylic acid, which is the active ingredient in aspirin. While there may be some mild pain-relieving properties conferred, aspirin also poses a very real threat of inducing more stomach upset by depleting the stomach of protective compounds called prostaglandins. So while one dose may not hurt your pet, it's questionable whether it will actually help. And long-term use may actually promote further stomach upset.

Benadryl (diphenhydramine)

What happens when an allergic reaction occurs? It's basically the body making a really big deal when something foreign invades it. The foreign substance could be something that incites a reaction in almost every individual, such as the venom from a bee sting, or it could be something that only incites a reaction in individuals that are allergic to it, such as grass. Either way, the body produces a bunch of inflammatory substances in an effort to neutralize the invader, and histamines are just one of those substances. That's why antihistamines (get it? “anti”-histamines???) can help improve the symptoms of an allergic reaction.

Because it's in almost everyone's medicine cabinet, dog owners often want to use it to help their pets. People give Benadryl to their pets for anything from anxiety to severe skin irritation, with varying results. It turns out that the oral form of diphenhydramine (the name of the actual drug in Benadryl) is pretty poorly absorbed in dogs, and there aren't many conditions that it improves. It may help a bit with mild allergies, but if your dog is having a severe allergic reaction (hives all over the body, vomiting, breathing difficulties) or is extremely agitated already, due to noise anxiety (fireworks, thunderstorms) it likely will not help.

Dramamine (dimenhydrinate)

Dramamine is another drug in the anti-histamine class, although it's better at relieving the signs of motion sickness than at treating allergic symptoms in people. The same goes for pets, and Dramamine can be effective at controlling the nausea associated with mild motion sickness. It should be given about an hour before travel. Dogs and cats can take 4 to 8 milligrams per kilogram of body weight every 8 hours.

If you're going to use either Benadryl or Dramamine in your pet, realize that “over-the-counter” has come to be equated with “benign,” and this may or may not be true in all individuals. All anti-histamines should be used with caution in any pet that has previously diagnosed conditions, especially glaucoma, heart disease, or metabolic conditions like hyperthyroidism. In short - discuss using these drugs with a veterinarian who knows your pet's specific medical history.

Topical ointments

Triple antibiotic ointments like Neosporin reside on almost everyone's medicine cabinet shelf. They typically contain the drugs neomycin, polymyxin, and bacitracin; all antibiotics that have been around for a long time, and all effective against the bacteria commonly present in uncomplicated superficial skin wounds.

Notice the emphasis on the words “uncomplicated” and “superficial”: Neosporin isn't going to help for deep or long-standing wounds. In situations involving much more than a scratch, pets mostly likely need oral antibiotics to effectively resolve infections. And remember: just because there's a lesion on the skin, that doesn't necessarily mean that it's infected. It could be an autoimmune skin condition, or even cancer, so unless you know for sure that the wound is due to an injury, you're better off getting it checked out.

A small bug bite that's itchy may benefit from the application of some topical hydrocortisone cream or ointment. Hydrocortisone is a weak steroid, a drug that reduces inflammation.

Remember that human medications aren't made under the consideration that patients might lick them off, so if you put human ointments or creams on your dog or cat, make sure to prevent that with an e-collar or bandage that isn't too tight.

Cough medications

The most common infectious respiratory condition in dogs is Kennel Cough, also known as infectious tracheobronchitis. It produces a harsh, honking cough that can keep both dogs and their owners up all night, and sometimes human cough medications like Robitussin can help considerably.

Collapsing trachea is another common canine malady. It's an anatomical problem that occurs in toy and small breed dogs with some frequency, and is due to a hereditary defect in the cartilage that forms the trachea. Those dogs often experience coughing fits, which sometimes improve with the use of cough suppressants.

Here's the caveat: there are many conditions that cause coughing in dogs, and infectious tracheobronchitis and collapsing trachea are only two of them. Dogs should not be given over-the-counter cough suppressants unless serious conditions like pneumonia, heart disease, and lung cancer have been definitively ruled out by your veterinarian.

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