When you pick up a prescription from your veterinarian, do you know that it's likely a "people med" your pet is getting? It's true! Aside from flea- and tick-control products and some non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, most of the medications your pets receive are crossovers from human medicine.
And when I say "most," I mean "almost all." Some 80 to 90 percent of the drugs used in veterinary medicine come from human medicine. This so-called "off-label" use of human drugs allows veterinarians to treat medical conditions (and species) that aren't always priorities for drug companies when it comes to developing and selling medications.
Some of the medications may be used for different health conditions in animals than in people. For years I'd get raised eyebrows when talking about dogs prescribed Viagra (in dogs, it can be used to treat a heart condition) or Botox (used to treat problems caused by deep skin folds in some dogs). More routinely (and less surprisingly) prescribed are "human" antibiotics, anti-anxiety medications and many other drugs that pretty much treat the same issues in both people and pets.
The practice of veterinary medicine is challenging, that's for sure. We have to work with multiple species, none of whom can say, "It hurts here, Doc!" And we have to know more about pharmacology than our physician counterparts. After all, in human medicine, all drugs are FDA-approved, meaning that they have undergone significant scrutiny for safety and efficacy — but only in one species: ours. The guidelines for use are fairly clear.
But when a veterinarian believes a particular human medication can help an animal, she'll prescribe based on information that's often not quite as regulated with regard to its use in animals. This has been the case for decades, of course, but the practice has only really been legal since 1994, when Congress passed the Animal Medicinal Drug Use Clarification Act (AMDUCA) regulating the conditions under which "off-label" use is acceptable.
Even before the legislation was in place, however, there was a working system for prescribing human drugs to pets. Veterinarians relied on peer-reviewed studies, clinical trials and published formularies that included suggestions for safe uses and dosages of human medications given to companion animals.
Today, with the legal issues cleared up, veterinarians and their patients have more options and better access to medications. Veterinarians have always been glad to provide in-house pharmaceutical services, and general pharmacists, too, have usually been willing to fill prescriptions written by vets. But recently, online retailers and specialty pharmacists have recognized that pets are an expansion market. These developments open the door to even more changes, including discussions on generic meds and walking out of your veterinarian's practice with a prescription instead of a pill bottle.
Chances are you won't be taking a prescription for Viagra or Botox with you the next time you go to the veterinarian's office, but you should still talk with the doctor about your pet's treatment options. A good veterinarian will discuss what medications your pet will need, tell you what screening tests may be required for safety beforehand, what side effects to look for after you get home and answer all your questions before you go. Your veterinarian should also encourage you to call with questions or concerns.
Good communication, after all, is as important a part of good medicine as, well, medicine.