Keeping Medicines Safe and Effective

Avoid storing them in sunlight, high heat and humidity, and label them for easy identification.

When you pick up antibiotics at the veterinary clinic for your ailing cat, your handling, storage and disposal of the medication can go a long way toward improving his health, safety and the environment.

Risks of medicine-related calamities exist in every home with pets. They include accidentally mixing human and pet medications, exposing cats to flea topical flea preventives made for dogs and storing medications incorrectly in a manner that may reduce their effectiveness.

How to Safely Dispose of Medicine

It’s important to follow local laws on disposal of unused or expired medicine to minimize health risks. For starters, never flush them down the toilet because the medicine can impact your community’s water supply, says Lisa Penny, director of pharmacy and a registered pharmacist at Cornell. “Also, drugs can be introduced into the environment and can make their way back into the food chain.”

Instead, she offers these safe measures:

  • Crush pills and mix them with kitty litter in a sealed bag and put it in the trash.
  • Ask about medical “take-back” programs in your community. Hospitals, some veterinary clinics and community news bulletins often have information on the programs.
  • Follow guidelines on disposing of needles and syringes. Some syringe containers can be sealed and delivered to designated medical recycle centers.

“Remember, what you put in the environment eventually goes back into your body, so take the proper precautions,” says Penny.

The Worst Location

Case in point: don’t stash medicine for you or your cat in the bathroom cabinet. “It’s one of the worst places to store medicine because the potency of many medicines is impacted by exposure to extreme environmental conditions – such as the heat and humidity generated by people taking hot, steamy showers,” says Lisa Penny, director of pharmacy and a registered pharmacist at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.

“Also, don’t leave your medicines or your cats’ medicines on a kitchen counter or a shelf exposed to sunlight where they can get too hot and the cats can easily reach them.”

Safer storage locations are dresser and nightstand drawers, closed kitchen cabinets and a shelf in an enclosed china cabinet.

Penny has been a pharmacist in human and veterinary medicine for 25 years. She shares her home with three dogs and two cats. All are on preventive medicines to keep them free of fleas and ticks. Each day, she gives vitamin supplements and anti-inflammatory pills to Mac, her 12-year-old Great Pyrenees.

veterinarian pharmacist

Michael P. Connor

Chewable Versions

Knowing that permethrin, an insecticide commonly found in canine flea and tick preventive topicals, can be highly toxic to her cats if they are exposed to it, Penny purposely gives her three dogs a safer alternative: chewable versions. One reason: “If you apply topical flea and tick medications on your dogs, you are advised not to have your cat around them for 24 to 48 hours,” she says. “Separating your dogs from your cats for that time can be challenging.”

Also, consider the weight differences if the cats and dogs were together. “The flea and tick medicine I give my 130-pound Great Pyrenees would be a toxic overdose to my 9-pound cat, Lilly, because cats cannot tolerate permethrin, especially at that high dose,” Penny says.

If you have a cat who loves to snuggle under the covers, don’t fit him with a flea and tick collar containing medicine designed to last six months or more. “There are no studies out there, but logically, if a pet wearing such a collar snuggles under the covers, the person can be in contact with that topical insecticide during the entire night of sleep. Why take that risk?” Penny says. “However, if your cat sleeps at the foot of your bed on top of your bedspread, that is fine.”

By law, any prescription medicine must be in a childproof container, but Penny knows that many people like the convenience of pill organizers to store daily amounts of pills and vitamins. Again, stash these organizers in a drawer or enclosed shelf to prevent a curious cat from accessing them.

“Yes, there are childproof containers, but nothing exists in life that is truly pet proof,” she says. “And if your pet vomits after receiving medication, do not re-medicate him. Call the veterinarian. The same applies if you are not sure if your pet swallowed one of your pills. Sometimes, inducing vomiting is the right thing to do and sometimes it is not, which is why you need to call the veterinarian right away.”

If owners want to split medications in advance to fit pill organizers, they should know some medications should be left whole. “Always check with the veterinarian or registered pharmacist,” Penny says. “In addition, splitting a dose to save money is never a good idea. The dose prescribed is what is needed to treat the condition. If cost is a challenge, some companies offer online rebates or discounts, or ask a registered pharmacist.”

Choice of Compounding

In choosing the form of the medication, Penny says some feline medications to treat hyperthyroidism or infections can be made more palatable by compounding pharmacies that add meat or fish flavoring that do not detract from the medicine’s potency. Ask your cat’s veterinarian or pharmacist about special syringe stoppers that fit on top of bottles of liquid medicine. These enable you to turn the bottle upside down and draw out the right dose into the syringe without spilling.

If your cat is on antibiotics and seems to be completely healthy, give him the entire dose. Do not stop halfway through the course of the prescription and think you can save these antibiotics for the next flare up, Penny says. “You don’t want to unintentionally create antibiotic resistance in your pet.”

If your cat is diagnosed with diabetes and requires insulin injections, Penny stresses the importance of not trying to save money by re-using the needles or syringes. “There is a concern of infection development if you re-use syringes, and every time you use the needle, it gets a little duller and a dull needle hurts more. And never use insulin beyond its expiration date, as it becomes less effective.”

Her final tip: use visual markers to easily identify your medicine and your cat’s. Prescription bottles from Cornell feature images of cats and dogs. You can go a step farther by placing something brightly colored like neon orange duct tape on the top of the bottles and always store medicine for your cat separately from yours.