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Can Medications Used for Animals Be Taken By People?

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Updated January 30, 2009

Question: Can Medications Used for Animals Be Taken By People?

A question from a reader: My parents own a farm and use drugs like antibiotics meant for their cows and chickens to treat themselves. I think they are doing this to save money. Is this safe for them to do? If not, what should I tell them?

Answer:

This is a really interesting question. The practice of humans using medications meant for animals is not uncommon, especially with people who work with animals, such as farmers, rodeo employees, horse trainers, and veterinary staff.

There are a number of issues with this practice. It is illegal for veterinarians (or anyone else) to sell or dispense any medications that are intended for animals for human consumption. Packages prepared by the drug manufacturer are clearly marked "not for human consumption" or some similar phrase.

Many drugs sold or dispensed by veterinarians for the treatment of illness in small domestic animals are generic equivalents of human drugs. For example, my pet cat has an inflammatory bowel problem and is taking prednisone -- the same medication I can get with a doctor’s prescription.

However, medications produced for livestock and intended to be mixed with feed may not undergo the same level of manufacturing scrutiny by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as human drugs do. These products may have more impurities that don't represent a health concern for the animals, but could for people.

A bigger issue, however, is self-medicating with drugs that may not be appropriate. This may especially be a problem with the self-diagnosis of an infection and then self-treating with an animal’s antibiotic. The self-diagnosis may not be correct. The antibiotic may not be the correct one to treat the infection or the dose may not be correct.

An incorrect diagnosis or incorrect medication can put someone’s health at great risk.

I would encourage your parents to see their doctor when they have an infection. If cost is the issue, many antibiotics are generic and can be purchased for as little as $4 for a prescription. In fact, several supermarket chains around the country offer free antibiotics during the winter months.

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