By Maura McAndrew
It’s fairly standard in this day and age for pets to be on regular medication. Many of our pets take a monthly heartworm pill and flea and tick prevention, and if you have a senior pet, the list of medications can grow. Tablets, liquids, injectables, creams—you name it, your dog or cat could end up needing it.
While they help our pets to lead longer and better lives, these medications are nothing to fool around with. If medications are improperly stored, pets, children, and even adults can potentially be at risk. We spoke with some experts for tips on how to minimize the dangers of pet medication through proper awareness, storage, and disposal.
Take note, however: your veterinarian should always be your go-to expert on these matters. “Because they have seen your pet, [veterinarians] are the best resource,” explains Dr. Mary Robinson, veterinarian and director of the Equine Pharmacology Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania. “If you have questions, ask them. Your pet’s welfare is our primary concern.”
According to Dr. Carmela Stamper, a veterinarian with the FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine, it’s extremely important to keep pet medications stored in a secure location that’s out of reach of pets and children. “The tricky part of that,” she says, “is what is ‘out of reach’? If you have a cat and you put your pet medications on the fridge, or a high shelf, or on the kitchen counter, your cat can still jump from place to place and access them.”
The most important thing is keeping pets and children safe, so be sure to assess their level of craftiness before choosing a storage space. Robinson, who holds a veterinary medical doctorate and a Ph.D. in pharmacology, agrees. “A high, closed cupboard is ideal for drugs that need to be stored at room temperature,” she explains. “Some may want to lock the cupboard for especially curious and persistent pets.”
And if you live on a farm with horses, cows, or other animals, Stamper offers extra caution: “What owners should do is consider treating their farm animals in a place where the dog or cat can’t get to,” she says. Pets have been killed after coming in contact with spilled livestock medications or even eating the feces of treated animals.
Since most of us think of medicines as wholly unappetizing, you may be wondering why pets would want to get into them at all. But many of today’s pet medications contain flavoring to make them palatable—and sometimes downright enticing. “If you have a pill bottle and it has a flavored medication in it, you as a pet owner might say, ‘I’m just going to hide this in a lower cabinet somewhere behind the pots and pans,’” Stamper explains. “But if you’ve got a dog with a good nose, the dog can rummage through the cabinets and find that.”
She notes that because most pill bottles are no match for a hungry dog’s teeth, once they find it, they can ingest it. And toddlers or young children can be lured by medication flavorings as well. Some medications have a banana or strawberry flavor that smells like candy, Stamper points out, and some chewable dog tablets can resemble pieces of chocolate. “Unfortunately, it creates the potential for an accidental exposure or even overdose” for kids and pets alike, she notes, which is why it’s all the more important to keep medications out of their reach.
“Even though the pet medications need to be stored securely just like human medications, they should be stored separately,” Robinson advises. For pet owners with a number of their own medications to take, confusing pet and human meds can be an issue. “It happens more commonly than you think,” Stamper says. “We’ll get calls about it periodically, where an owner will say ‘I just took my dog’s heartworm medication; what should I do?’ Or ‘I gave my dog my thyroid medication.’”
Pet owners can take two important steps to avoid this. For one, check the label—every single time. “I know we’re all in a hurry,” Stamper says, “but reading that label is really important.” She notes that some clinics are also trying to make pet medications stand out, like using dark green pill bottles or adding a cartoon paw print to the cap to catch your eye.
Secondly, you’ll want to keep your medications in a completely different location than your pets’—Stamper advises far enough apart that you have to walk from one area to the other. “It is easy for people to just put all the pill vials in one spot on the counter, but that’s when people end up taking the wrong thing,” she says.
“Medications, just like food, have a shelf life and storage requirements,” Robinson says. “If medications are not stored according to the instructions, they will not work the way they are supposed to, and in some cases can even become dangerous.” Sometimes pet medications will need to be refrigerated, so pay attention to your vet’s instructions as well as the prescription label.
Stamper and Robinson agree that once a medication has expired, it should be considered off-limits to pets. “Pet owners should not give their pets expired medication,” Stamper says, citing FDA recommendations. “They can become less effective because of chemical changes that the drug has gone through over time. Or if it’s some sort of sterile medication like an injectable…then you’re at risk for bacteria to be growing in that medication.”
In some cases, Robinson notes, expired medications can even be toxic. It’s important to not only be aware of expiration dates on our pets’ medicine, but also to dispose of medications once they’ve expired to avoid confusion.
As a responsible pet owner, you’ll want to dispose of expired or unneeded medications. But how do you do this in a way that’s safe for you, your pets, your children, and the environment? “If you need to dispose of medication in the household trash, what the FDA recommends is that you mix that medication with something that doesn’t taste good, like used kitty litter or used coffee grounds,” Stamper says. “Put the pills or liquid in with that stuff, and put the mixture in some sort of a sealable container, like a zip-top baggie.”
This works well for standard medications, but Stamper warns that particular types of drugs, like fentanyl patches, may require special disposal. “If you have medications that are potentially dangerous, the FDA recommends that pet owners take those drugs to some kind of community drug take-back event, or you can contact the Drug Enforcement Administration for a list of authorized collectors in your area,” she says.
If you’re not sure what constitutes a dangerous drug, give your veterinarian a call for the most reliable advice, Robinson says.
No matter how careful you are about your pets’ medication, accidents can happen: a pet can consume a large amount of medication or the wrong medication. In case they do, you’ll want to have a plan of response.
There are no telltale signs of a drug overdose. Robinson explains that symptoms can be anything from mild discomfort to vomiting to seizures depending on the type and amount of medication involved.
“If a pet owner suspects that their pet has gotten into medication, they need to immediately contact their veterinarian,” Stamper says. She also notes that pet owners can contact the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center or the Pet Poison Helpline, where specialists will review cases to determine what kind of care might be needed.
But if the situation is dire and your vet isn’t available, the nearest emergency vet is the best option. “Every pet owner should know the location of their closest veterinary emergency clinic,” Robinson says. “If someone is able to help you, ask them to call ahead to let the clinic know the situation and that you are on your way.”
The consequences of pet medication overdoses vary widely, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry. “That prompt action is really going to mean the difference between that pet’s life and death,” Stamper says.