Posted: March 11, 2011, 4:00 p.m. EST
Medications that are safe for people or other pets aren't necessarily safe for all pets.
It happened on a Saturday afternoon. Isn't that the way it always is — when everything is closed? I had all eight of my ferrets loose and playing in the house. They were young, active, curious and into everything. I realized something must be wrong when none of the ferrets came to bother me as I was cleaning the living room. I went upstairs to find out where the clan was, and found all of them hovering around my desk in the office. Unfortunately, they had gotten one of the drawers open and pulled out a bottle of ibuprofen. They had chewed the top off of the bottle, and the entire group was busily licking the coating off the tablets.
I knew ibuprofen was toxic to ferrets, so I had to act quickly. I snatched the remaining tablets away from the ferrets, counting them as I replaced them in the bottle. I made a mental note of who I had seen licking tablets and who seemed to be spectating. I locked the ferrets out of the room, and ran with the bottle to the phone to call the ASPCA Animal Pet Poisoning Control Center. Fortunately, the phone number was on my refrigerator. Within minutes, I had the information I needed to treat my pets and, luckily, they all survived. Ibuprofen toxicity is fatal in a very high percentage of exposed ferrets. We were all very lucky — but knowing the right steps to take in an emergency helped.
What's Good For People Can Sometimes Hurt Pets
Human medications are the most common source of pet toxins, resulting in 25 percent of the calls to the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center. Some of these ingestions are accidental, where a pet finds tablet(s) and consumes them; but sometimes these medications are administered by well-meaning owners to their pets. The most common toxicities are associated with the medications we often take as humans — nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (acetominophen, ibuprofen, aspirin), anti-depressants, and behavioral modification medications.
Especially important is both preventing a potential poisoning situation for your pets, as well as knowing exactly what to do when one occurs.
Tips For Preventing Pet Poisoning From Human Medications
1. First and foremost, do not administer any human medication to your pet unless specifically directed to do so by your veterinarian.
2. If you are told it is safe to give an over-the-counter (OTC) medication, be sure to verify the amount to be given, the strength of the medication and the frequency. For example, giving a baby aspirin twice per day is very different than giving an extra strength aspirin — so confirm all of the details before giving anything.
3. Don't assume that because it was safe to give to one of your other pets, it is always safe. For example, ferrets can tolerate many medications that could be fatal to a rabbit or guinea pig.
4. Topical medications are risky also without direction — the animal may ingest them and become sick, could have an allergic reaction to them, or could be overdosed by the active ingredient travelling through the skin. When in doubt, wait until you can get veterinary confirmation that what you are doing will not hurt your pet! If you believe your pet is sick enough that you need to give it something, then it is sick enough to ask for veterinary advice first.
5. Keep in mind the abilities of your pet and be sure to keep medications well out of reach. Owners of ferrets and sugar gliders will have more difficulty keeping their pets away from prescription medications than, for example, hamster and guinea pig owners.
6. Be sure to keep track of tablets when you take medications, and locate any that may have been dropped. Prevention is much easier than treatment!
What To Do If You Suspect Your Pet Has Been Poisoned
Despite precautions, accidents do happen; what you do in those first few moments can make all of the difference. Most importantly, keep your cool. Have a plan already in place for such a circumstance. Every household should have a first-aid kit prepared for their pets, and either on top of that kit or somewhere easy to find in the house should be phone resources: your veterinarian's phone number, the local emergency clinic information and an animal poison control hotline number. Most poison control centers charge a fee, but this is worth every penny if it saves your animal's life.
Your kit should also include the medication recommended by your veterinarian to induce vomiting (often hydrogen peroxide). Note that some poisonings are made worse through the ingestion of a vomiting agent, so do not induce vomiting unless you are specifically told to do so by a veterinarian.
Assess the situation quickly — is your pet stable or already in trouble? What did it eat, and can you tell how much was eaten? Quickly collect any leftover amount as well as the original packaging, if possible — even if it has been chewed on, it may yield clues to the proper treatment. Anyone helping you with your pet will need to know an approximate weight of the animal, what poison was ingested, how much was ingested and what time the ingestion occurred.
If your pet is already showing signs of illness, head directly to your veterinarian if they are open or the emergency clinic if they are not. Be sure to call ahead, if you can, to let them know that you are on the way. Providing the basic information of how much of what was consumed can help them to be properly prepared to act quickly when you arrive. Do not be alarmed if your pet is taken away from you quickly upon arrival; this means that the veterinarian wants to immediately start decontamination procedures on your pet while the staff collects more information from you.
If your pet appears stable, do not wait for signs of trouble to appear. Call a veterinarian or a poison control center for advice. There may be a home antidote you can administer, or it may be important for your pet to get to a veterinarian immediately. Often, poisons can take time to damage the system, and acting quickly to counteract their effects can be life-saving. Many of our small companion animals are so tiny that even a fraction of a “human dose” can have devastating effects, and swift intervention is necessary to prevent fatalities.
Knowing what to do in a crisis and keeping your cool can turn a potentially disastrous situation like mine into just a lesson learned and a stressful memory. I hope that sharing this information will help prevent other owners going through what I did that weekend and help your furry friends live a long and healthy life!
Dr. Mitchell owns Animal Medical Associates in Saco, Maine. She shares her home with ferrets, cats, birds, a dog and a good-natured husband.