Disclaimer: This is not going to be a very scientific article.
I am on a mission to tell all of you to not only keep your prescription medications away from your pets but also keep your over-the-counter drugs and natural “supplements” under lock and key.
No medication or herb, though it may be “natural,” is without consequences. These are drugs, in my opinion, that are not regulated and often don’t have the proper labels on them to protect a pet — or a human — from side-effects or even death.
If one more person tells me they bought a “safe” product at Whole-Y Foods or Nature-Is-Us, I might scream. Supplements, “sleep aids,” “stress relievers” made from plants and “natural” resources are drugs. Treat them that way. “Natural” can also mean deadly. “Natural” also may mean they have no regulation.
The Story of a Natural Sleep Aid
A young man with a sweet little white 2-year-old dog called in an emergency.
The dog got into Stress-Relax Tranquil Sleep pills. The little dog probably consumed the entire bottle (an overdose), and his humans did not recognize this for 5–6 hours. The young man was not that concerned when he called because he said it was a “natural” product.
Natural-schmatural. This OTC (over-the-counter) sleep aid contains many harmful ingredients.
The dog was already exhibiting tremors and seizures. Despite the fact that the emergency vet did everything possible, it simply was too late — the pup did not make it. And no treatment could have reversed this. Too much drug and too many hours of toxicity.
Of course, this is an extreme example, but it’s an important one.
This particular sleep aid contains 5-HTP, a supplement that is not controlled by anyone, including the FDA. It also contains L-Theanine, a substance derived from tea leaves and mushrooms, and xylitol, a substance highly toxic to dogs and cats, is listed an “inactive ingredient.”
We’ve written about xylitol before. It’s in gums and candies and foods and some drugs and OTC meds and dietary supplements. It’s in a lot of things — and it’s a huge danger.
Natural Supplement or Drug?
Again, I can’t be too scientific here since the topic is broad enough for a master’s thesis.
But please understand that many of our prescription “drugs” come from natural, plant-based extracts. So if you are taking a plant-based “natural” medication or an herb, you are taking a drug.
I’ll give you an example. Vincristine is a drug that I use all the time in my cancer and autoimmune patients. It is listed on the World Health Organization’s list of essential medicines. It is life-saving but also can have serious side effects.
This drug is a vinca alkaloid and comes from the Madagascar periwinkle, a lovely little flower. In other words, a highly useful but toxic chemotherapy drug is derived from a plant, like many other drugs.
“Natural” does not mean “safe.” It’s important to keep all of this stuff away from your pets and your kids. The xylitol, an artificial sweetener, may have attracted that poor little dog to those sleeping pills.
Most dogs don’t like to munch on an entire bottle of pills unless there’s some attraction.
While you’re at it, keep these foods and drinks that are toxic to dogs locked away:
In Case of Overdose
Time is of the essence if you believe your pet has ingested a toxic substance. Veterinarians try to:
- Get the drug out of the system (induce vomit if possible and safe).
- Absorb any residual drug with treatments, such as activated charcoal.
- Support the patient with IV fluids and medications to control side effects such as tremors, seizures, vomiting, etc.
But if many hours have gone by and a pet, child or adult has taken an overdose, our chances of saving them deteriorate by the minute.
Remember these things when you have “natural” supplements, drugs, sugarless gums and candies in your bag or hanging around the house:
- Lock ‘em up!
- Put ‘em in a safe cabinet that’s difficult (or, better yet, impossible) for your pets to open!
- Put your handbag out of reach!
I’m sounding like a preacher here, but deaths of healthy pets due to toxicities are never easy to forget. I feel for anyone who suffers this loss because of the guilt and sadness they endure.
And I feel for all those vets out there who try to reverse an often irreversible toxic situation.
My last case of the morning was a cat who was having “strange seizures.” However, a straightforward diagnosis took a dangerous turn when the caregiver decided against conventional treatment.
The patient, a sweet black cat named Tammie, looked slightly dazed as she stuck her head out of the basket and peeked around.
She had been having hourly seizures for 3 days. Tammie had also been ravenous for months but had lost lots of weight.
If you have an elderly cat, the symptoms of a big appetite and weight loss may ring a bell as signs of hyperthyroidism, or overactive thyroid glands.
When I examined Tammie, the clinical findings backed up this hunch.
Tammie was skinny, and her racing heart was pounding hard and bouncing against her ribs.
She had retinal edema — fluid accumulation in the eye because of high blood pressure. Her liver was enlarged, another result of high blood pressure.
In my 28 years in practice, I found that she had the biggest thyroid gland I’ve felt. It was the size of an egg. And, of course, Tammie was having regular seizures caused by excessive levels of thyroid hormone and sky-high blood pressure.
I explained the signs to the Tammie’s caregiver, who agreed to blood tests. The diagnosis was confirmed — and, given that it was imperative to stop the seizures before Tammie had a stroke or went blind, I prescribed medication to lower the cat’s thyroid levels.
A simple enough case of diagnosis and treatment. There was no great mystery as to what was wrong or how to treat it. So why was this case so frustrating?
A Phone Conversation
There was something about the cat’s person not seeking help earlier that made me uncomfortable. That same evening, I decided to call her and see how Tammie was doing.
“Ah,” she said into the phone. “I’m not happy about those pills you prescribed.”
She had been on the Internet and decided the tablets would do more harm than good.
Chatting for a bit, I discovered she’d mistaken the prescribed medication for a different type of therapy involving radiation. I reassured her that Tammie had not been prescribed a radioactive substance and that the tablets were essential.
But she was still unhappy about the risk of side effects. The conversation went along the lines of, “I’ve been speaking to my friend who is into homeopathy…” at which point I felt a sense of doom about where things were heading.
Not a Rant Against Homeopathy
Cards on the table: I’m not a fan of homeopathy. The reasons are numerous, but I feel this way mainly because it’s bad science.
You can liken it to putting a single drop of cola in the ocean on one side of the Atlantic and scooping out a cup of water on the other side and expecting it to taste of cola.
However, my point here is to urge you to have a sense of proportion, especially when your pet is seriously ill.
Let’s look at Tammie. Her seizures placed her at high risk of a stroke. She was a hair’s breadth from blindness — and a heart attack. Now is not the time to “give homeopathy a go,” which is the equivalent to doing nothing.
This cat has hyperthyroidism and was treated with traditional medicine:
A Seesaw Decision
The objection to conventional treatment was that drugs have side effects that could harm the pet.
Yes, all drugs have side effects. Incidentally, so does milk if you are lactose intolerant — nothing in life is risk-free. But this must be balanced against the benefits.
The risks listed on a drug data sheet can be relatively common (such as stomach upsets with certain antibiotics) or rare, but it is reassuring that those risks aren’t swept under the carpet so that you can weigh the pros and cons to make an informed decision.
Think of the decision as a seesaw, with benefits at one end and risks at the other. In Tammie’s case, she had Team Elephant sitting on the benefits end and a feather on the other.
Unfortunately, despite having the facts before her, Tammie’s caregiver was determined to go down the homeopathy route. That’s her decision to make. I couldn’t change her mind, but sadly Tammie will suffer as a result.
Final Thoughts on “Natural” Drugs and Homeopathy for Pets
Please — when deciding what’s best for your pet, keep a sense of proportion.
Don’t make your pet suffer unnecessarily by having misplaced good intentions fly in the face of science-backed evidence.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, with contributions from Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. This article was reviewed for accuracy by Dr. Elliott was last updated Dec. 17, 2018.