Potentially Lifesaving for You, Poison to Your Pet

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

pet poison pills

Story at-a-glance -

  • Even very small amounts of common prescription and over-the-counter human medications can be deadly for cats and dogs
  • Ibuprofen are other types of pain relievers are among the most common medications involved in pet poisonings
  • Medications prescribed to treat attention ADD and ADHD, sleep aids and antidepressants can also have life-threatening side effects in pets
  • If you’re a pet parent, it’s important to take steps to store all medications and supplements out of your dog’s or cat’s reach
  • If you know or suspect your pet has ingested a human over-the-counter or prescription medication call your veterinarian, a local emergency animal hospital or a pet poison hotline immediately

Incredibly, nearly 50% of calls to the Pet Poison Helpline each year involve animal companions ingesting human medications, both over-the-counter and prescription drugs. The most common victims are inquisitive dogs who do things like chew into a bottle of pills.

But cats can get into trouble, too, especially with certain specific medications they are attracted to. Just one pill carelessly dropped on the floor or left on a counter or table can spell serious trouble for your furry family member.

In some poisoning cases, a pet parent accidently gives their dog or cat their own medication; however, some owners intentionally give a drug that’s safe for humans, not realizing it can be toxic to pets. And even though some medications are prescribed for both animals and humans, it’s a really bad idea to give your pet a medication that was prescribed for you, as the dose or ingredients could be dangerous.

No matter how the ingestion occurs, pharmaceuticals developed for humans can cause serious illness and even death in dogs and cats. If you have any of the following medications in your home, be sure to keep them safely out of your pet's reach at all times.

14 Common Human Drugs That Poison Pets

1. Ibuprofen — Topping the list of human medications that can get into the mouths of pets are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or NSAIDs, especially ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin). Pets are extremely sensitive to compounds in these medications and can become very ill from even a very small dose. Cats can wind up with kidney and liver damage, and any pet that ingests NSAIDs can develop ulcers of the digestive tract.

Symptoms of poisoning include digestive upset, vomiting, bloody stool, increased thirst, increased frequency of urination, staggering, and seizures.

2. Tramadol — Tramadol (brand name Ultram) is a pain reliever that’s sometimes prescribed to pets as well as people. However, if your pet consumes too much, it can lead to sedation, disorientation, vomiting, tremors and seizures.

3. Alprazolam — Alprazolam (Xanax) is a benzodiazepine, which is a drug designed to reduce anxiety and help people sleep better. However, in pets, it sometimes has the opposite effect.

About half the dogs who ingest benzodiazepines become agitated instead of sedated. In addition, these drugs may cause severe lethargy, incoordination, and a slowed breathing rate. In cats, some forms of benzodiazepines can cause liver failure.

4. Adderall — Adderall, prescribed to treat attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in humans, is an amphetamine and very dangerous for pets. Ingesting even minimal amounts of ADD/ADHD medications can cause life-threatening tremors, seizures, elevated body temperature, and heart problems. Other common brand names include Concerta, Focalin, Strattera, and Vyvanse.

5. Zolpidem — Zolpidem (Ambien) is a sleep aid that many pet parents leave on their nightstand to take before bedtime. If your cat decides to sample it, it could lead to sleepiness and make him wobbly. If a dog consumes it, it may lead to severe agitation and elevated heart rates.

6. Clonazepam — Clonazepam (Klonopin) is prescribed as an anticonvulsant and anti-anxiety medication as well as a sleep aid. It may lead to sleepiness and wobbliness in pets, as well as low blood pressure, weakness and collapse.

7. Acetaminophen — Acetaminophen is another type of anti-inflammatory drug. Tylenol is the most well-known brand name, but other drugs, including certain varieties of Excedrin and several sinus and cold preparations, also contain acetaminophen.

Cats are at particular risk from acetaminophen, as just two extra-strength tablets can be fatal. If your dog ingests acetaminophen, permanent liver damage can result. And the higher the dose, the more likely that red blood cell damage will occur. Symptoms of acetaminophen poisoning are lethargy, trouble breathing, dark-colored urine, diarrhea, and vomiting.

8. Naproxen — Naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn) is an over-the-counter pain reliever that even in very small doses can lead to stomach ulcers and kidney failure in cats and dogs.

9. Duloxetine — Duloxetine, brand name Cymbalta, is an antidepressant/anti-anxiety drug. If your dog or cat ingests an antidepressant, symptoms can include listlessness, vomiting, and in some cases, a condition known as serotonin syndrome. This condition can cause agitation, disorientation, and an elevated heart rate, along with elevated blood pressure and body temperature, tremors, and seizures.

Other common antidepressant brand names include Effexor, Lexapro, Celexa, and Pristiq. Cats are for some reason drawn to these medications, which can cause severe neurologic and cardiac side effects.

10. Thyroid hormones — Pets — especially dogs — can develop an underactive thyroid just as humans do. However, the dose of thyroid hormone (e.g., Armour, Nature-Throid and WP Thyroid, Synthroid) needed to treat dogs is much higher than the human dose. Therefore, if dogs accidentally get into thyroid hormones at home, it rarely results in problems.

However, acute overdoses, especially in cats can cause significant symptoms, including muscle tremors, nervousness, panting, a rapid heart rate and aggression.

11. Beta-blockers — Even taken in very small quantities, beta-blockers (e.g., Coreg, Sectral, Tenormin, Toprol, Zebeta) used to treat high blood pressure can cause serious problems for pets. Overdoses can trigger life-threatening decreases in blood pressure and a very slow heart rate.

12. Albuterol — Albuterol is one of the medications used in asthma inhalers. Poisoning typically occurs when a dog punctures an inhaler with his teeth, which results in a massive dose of the drug delivered all at once. Albuterol poisoning can cause vomiting, a dangerously elevated heart rate, and severe weakness.

13. Ace inhibitors — Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors such as Zestril and Altace, Lotensin, Prinivil, and Vasotec are commonly used to treat high blood pressure in people and, occasionally, pets. Though overdoses can cause low blood pressure, dizziness, and weakness, this category of medication is typically safe.

Pets ingesting small amounts of this medication can potentially be monitored at home, unless they have kidney failure or heart disease.

14. Birth control medications — Birth control pills (e.g., estrogen, estradiol, progesterone) often come in packages that dogs find very tempting. Fortunately, small amounts of these medications typically aren’t problematic. However, large ingestions of estrogen and estradiol can cause bone marrow suppression, especially in birds.

In addition, intact female pets are at an increased risk of side effects from estrogen poisoning.

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Keeping Pets Safe from Medication Poisoning

To prevent your dog or cat from getting into your medications, always keep them safely out of reach and never administer a medication to your pet without first consulting with your veterinarian.

  • Never leave loose pills in a plastic sandwich bag, as the bags are too easy to chew into. Make sure all family members and guests do the same, keeping their medications out of reach.
  • If you keep your medications in a pillbox or weekly pill container, make sure to store the container in a cabinet, as your dog might think it’s a plastic chew toy.
  • Never store your medications near your pet’s medications. Pet poison hotlines receive hundreds of calls every year from concerned pet parents who have inadvertently given their own medication to their pet.
  • Hang up your purse or backpack. Curious pets will explore the contents of your bag and simply placing it up out of reach solves the problem.

It’s important to realize that even seemingly benign over-the-counter herbal medications, human vitamins and mineral supplements may cause serious poisoning in pets.

If your pet has ingested a human over-the-counter or prescription medication, call your veterinarian, your local emergency animal hospital, or Pet Poison Helpline’s 24-hour animal poison control center at 855-764-7661 immediately.

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