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Dangers of Topical Medication for Pets

By Helen Anne Travis

The topical products we use on ourselves and even our pets could cause big problems if accidentally ingested or administered incorrectly. Here’s how to keep your pets safe.

Protect Your Pets From People Products

Animals are curious and no one is perfect, which means it’s all too easy to accidentally leave your favorite topical product in the path of an inquisitive pet. The following products can cause major problems:

Zinc oxide: A common ingredient in sunscreen, diaper rash formulas, and calamine lotions, zinc oxide can be particularly damaging to a dog’s intestines if ingested, says Dr. Rachel Barrack of New York City’s Animal Acupuncture. Keep an eye out for vomiting and diarrhea; these are signs your dog’s intestines have been injured. And once absorbed into the bloodstream, zinc damages red blood cells, leading to anemia, pale or yellow mucous membranes, weakness, rapid breathing, and abnormally dark urine.

Retinoids: Found in many anti-aging products, retinoids can cause tummy trouble for dogs if ingested, resulting in lethargy, vomiting, and decreased appetite, says Dr. Carol Osborne, veterinarian at Chagrin Falls Pet Clinic in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. Another potential side effect in dogs is the development of keratoconjunctivitis sicca (dry eye). You’ll also want to keep any pregnant dogs far from your wrinkle reducers, as the retinoids could cause birth defects, she adds.

NSAIDs: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, are commonly used in over-the-counter and prescription creams to treat pain and inflammation. They make you feel better, but they can cause everything from stomach ulcers to kidney failure in pets if administered incorrectly. Signs of toxicity include decreased appetite and vomiting, Barrack says.

Steroid creams: If ingested or absorbed through your dog’s skin, these can cause endocrine disorders, Osborne says. You may notice an increase in thirst and the need to urinate. The dog may also have nausea and diarrhea. Exposure to estrogen creams can cause heat-like symptoms in spayed female dogs and mammary gland enlargement in males.

Minoxidil: Found in hair growth products, minoxidil can cause severe cardiovascular issues, including heart failure, if ingested, Barrack says.

The easiest way to keep your pets safe is to store your topical products in a secure location, Barrack says. Wash your hands thoroughly after applying any topical medicine or treatment, and never use human products on your pet without a veterinarian’s guidance.

“I always say to keep the items out of paw's reach,” Osborne recommends.

If you suspect your pet has ingested something he shouldn’t have, or if he exhibits any signs of strange or unusual behavior, call your veterinarian or nearest emergency clinic, she advises. If there are any traces of products still on their skin or coat, get them in the tub immediately.

Protect Your Pets From Pet Products

Even topical products that are intended for pets can cause problems. Pet parents may accidentally administer the wrong amount of medicine for the animal’s body weight, or the pet may lick a spot that has just been treated.

Topical flea and tick medications may contain insecticides like pyrethrin and permethrin, Barrack says. If ingested or applied improperly, these can harm the nervous system, resulting in seizures, nerve damage, and even collapse. Always read the instructions thoroughly and call your vet immediately if your pet exhibits excessive salivation, vomiting, or diarrhea, she says.

“If you realize you made a big mistake, wash the pet immediately,” Osborne adds. “Cats are especially sensitive.”

In multi-pet households, it’s all too easy to accidentally use a product intended for one pet on another. Or perhaps one pet decided to give the other a few good licks after an application.

A product designed for a 60-pound dog could cause big problems in a 6-pound cat. Keep an eye out for signs of toxicity, which can range from vomiting and lethargy to nervousness, twitching, and seizures. Some toxic exposures lead to a condition known as  S.L.U.D., Osborne says. This stands for salivation, lacrimation (running eyes), urination, and defecation.

“Anytime your pet inadvertently takes a medication that wasn’t intended for them—be it your medication or one intended for another member of the household, call your veterinarian immediately,” Barrack stresses.

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