Over-the-counter medicine, household pets don’t mix

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Cats might have nine lives, but a single Tylenol tablet can quickly end all nine.

Two weeks ago, Eva Syrovy noticed that her cat was mewling unhappily, in distress from a small open wound on the animal’s shoulder.  She decided to treat her beloved pet by giving her half a tablet of Tylenol, an acetaminophen painkiller, reasoning that such a common, universally available medication would be as safe for animals as it is for humans.

Twenty-four hours later, the cat was dead.

“I noticed that she was in discomfort, so I gave her another half tablet,” Syrovy said. “She got worse, so I Googled ‘Tylenol cats,’ found out what I’d done, and took her to the vet. But it was too late.”

Far from being safe for felines, acetaminophen is a deadly poison.

“Perhaps the safest way to look at acetaminophen toxicity in cats is that no dose is safe,” said Dr. Vera Steenbergen at the ASPCA animal poison control center in Urbana, Ill.

One regular strength acetaminophen tablet is toxic and potentially lethal to a cat.  Cats cannot process acetaminophen in their livers, where it is quickly converted into a substance that prevents red blood cells from carrying oxygen to the body.

Pet poisoning by non-prescription drugs, according to the pet insurance industry, accounted for more than 55 percent of 6,000 poisoning claims filed during 2007.  However, because only about 10 percent of pet owners insure their animals, the actual number of such poisonings is likely much higher.

Acetaminophen is less lethal to dogs, but still dangerously toxic. Sometimes poisoning occurs when a pet eats a pill that has been left out or dropped on the floor.  More often, well-meaning owners give their pets a painkiller to alleviate pain or discomfort.

Of the popular non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs that are freely available without prescription at any pharmacy, none are absolutely safe for animals. But of all NSAIDs, products containing acetaminophen are the most toxic.

Yet nowhere on the extensive Web site maintained by the manufacturers of Tylenol, McNeil-PPC, is there any mention of the drug’s possible danger to pets.  A similar search of the Web sites of other pharmaceutical companies that manufacture competing NSAIDs produced the same result.

Ortho-McNeil-Janssen,  McNeil-PPC’s parent company, did not return calls from the Business Journal seeking comment.

Dr. Lee Wilwerding at the Banfield Pet Hospital was surprised to learn that Tylenol’s Web site contains no mention of its toxicity to pets, particularly cats.

“I don’t know why they omit that information.” he said, “Certainly, the manufacturers know about (the product’s) toxicity.  It’s been known for a long time.”

According to the Food and Drug Administration’s Web site, “…  these pain-relief products are not good alternatives to the approved veterinary products. The use of an approved product is always preferable because its safety and effectiveness have been reviewed. … There is no reporting requirement for unapproved products.”

The agency advises consumers that “… human drugs should never be given to pets except under the direction of a veterinarian. While many human drugs are used in companion animal medicine, many of the drugs that humans take can be extremely toxic to our pets (one example is Tylenol, which can be fatal to cats).”

Dr. Lisa Gerleman-Lehman at the Polo Springs Veterinary Hospital said that drug companies are very cautious about “off-label” use.

“Drug reps have very little ability to talk about off-label use, even if veterinarians have been using those drugs forever,” she said. “And cats are very different from dogs – people will get a prescription for a dog, use it for their cat, and the cat will suffer.”

Gerleman-Lehman said that competitive pressures might be responsible for the seemingly universal omission of any mention of animal drug toxicity.

“If one company posts it, pet owners will just use something else that doesn’t have a label,” she said. “I think that people are better educated – they know not to give drugs to their pets but it still happens. In one case, we had spayed a cat, and the cat’s owner didn’t fill the prescription we had given her, and gave her Tylenol – luckily, we were able to save her.  And you even see cases of people giving animals anti-psychotics and anti-depressants. We actually see more dogs than cats. I think people are more reluctant to give cats medicine – all those sharp teeth!”