Avoid Common OTC Medicines

Be wary about giving your cat drugs made for humans, no matter what Dr. Google tells you to do


It can be tempting when your cat seems to feel just a “bit off”—maybe sniffling or a little sore—to use an over-the-counter (OTC) medication to give her some relief. Is this OK? The response of veterinary experts is a resounding “NO!”

Cats have a somewhat unique system for metabolizing drugs in their livers. Cats lack certain enzymes, which means that some medications are either processed very slowly by the liver or virtually not at all. As a result, toxic concentrations of those medications can build up in your cat’s system fairly quickly.

Better Safe Than Sorry

Leni K. Kaplan, MS, DVM, of the Community Practice Service at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, stresses that some common medications can be harmful to cats. “I would recommend avoiding all OTC medications unless otherwise directed by a veterinarian. Owners should absolutely avoid pain and fever-relieving medications including, but not limited to, Tylenol (acetaminophen), Advil (ibuprofen), and Aleve (naproxen).” While many owners have gotten the word on acetaminophen, Dr. Kaplan points out that almost any common pain medication can have harmful effects on your cat.

Other problems also can result from using OTC medications in your pets without veterinary guidance, including that the medication may not be beneficial for the problem your cat has. In addition, if your cat is on other medications or supplements, the OTC drug may not be compatible. “Though there are OTC medications that can be safely used in cats, no medications should be used unless directed by a veterinarian,” says Dr. Kaplan. “If an owner is considering using an OTC medication for their cat, they should call or see a veterinarian first to make sure the product is truly safe, its use is indicated for the given ailment, and to find out the appropriate dose for that patient. ‘Safe’ medications can have untoward effects in a given patient even when used at appropriate doses; inappropriate doses can produce toxic side effects.”

Getting Proper Help

So what do you do if your cat has a minor problem that you feel an OTC medication you have on hand might help? Call your veterinarian. A clear description of the problem, along with an accurate weight of your cat plus a thorough history of your cat’s health and a listing of any medications or supplements she is currently taking might lead to a handy choice. Or your veterinarian may need to call in a prescription for a safer, more effective choice.

Don’t count on “Dr. Google!” For one thing, many OTC formulations have changed in recent years. An example is the standard Kaopectate. This medication now contains a salicylate (think aspirin). This is not a suitable option for your cat.

While aspirin is occasionally used for pain and to prevent blood-clot formation in cats, the dose is carefully monitored. For example, in people, aspirin can be taken up to every six to eight hours. In cats, it should only be given every 48 hours and at a very low dose. Cats on aspirin require close monitoring for gastric irritation and liver problems.

If your cat is sick enough to warrant medication, she is probably sick enough for a veterinary visit. “If an owner feels their cat needs an OTC medication, the cat should be seen by a veterinarian. Delaying diagnosis and treatment by attempting at-home remedies with OTC medications will often impact treatment options and the pet’s response to therapy. Depending on the pet’s condition, the use of prescription medication may be warranted,” says Dr. Kaplan. Early diagnosis and treatment mean lower veterinary bills in the long run.