While medications and treatments prescribed by veterinarians can help your pets live longer, healthier lives, they can pose dangers to your children.
Approximately half of all U.S. households include a dog, and over 30 percent of Americans have cats, according to the ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals). And it’s not unusual for these pets to need medications for health conditions or to prevent problems like fleas, ticks, and heartworms.
"When you have kids and pets in the home, sometimes things get a little busy. Thinking about how your pet's medicines could be a risk for your family might not even cross your mind,” said Kristi Roberts, MPH, research project coordinator in the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.
Roberts, along with colleagues from the Center for Injury Research and Policy and the Central Ohio Poison Center (COPC), investigated calls to the COPC over the course of 14 years (1999 to 2013) to document children’s exposure to medications meant for pets. In all, they found 1,431 calls — an average of two calls every week — from parents and caretakers worried about youngsters who had been exposed to veterinary drugs. Almost all of these accidental exposures occurred in the children’s own homes.
While the study included reports about youngsters 19 years old or younger, almost 90 percent of the cases involved toddlers and kindergarten-aged children. Most of these little kids were simply exploring when they found pet medications on a table, counter top, or in a bag and ate or swallowed the pills. About 23 percent of the accidental or unintentional exposures happened when parents were trying to give medications to pets.
When older kids, especially teens, took drugs meant for animals, it was primarily due to mistaking pet meds for those meant for people. Simply storing pet medications in a different place instead of alongside human medicines in homes could help prevent this confusion, the researchers concluded.
Most of the time, the children who were exposed to the pet drugs didn’t suffer any long-term or chronic medical problems. But that doesn’t mean there were no health effects, although over 90 percent of cases were able to be managed at home. In all, 80 kids were referred to an ER or other healthcare facility, and two of the children in the study had moderate medical problems from their exposure to animal medications.
"The good news is that by taking a few simple steps like storing medicine for pets and humans in different places that are up and away and out of sight, and only giving medicine to pets when the children aren't in the room, you can help keep everyone in the family a little safer,” Roberts said.
Henry Spiller, director of the COPC, also advises veterinarians to help prevent unintended exposures to pet drugs by making sure they dispense all medications in child-resistant containers.
The researchers recommend parents and caregivers keep children safer around pet medications by storing the meds safely out of sight until your pet’s next dose — preferably in a locked cabinet or at least where children can’t see or reach the drugs or treatments. It’s also important to keep all animal medicines, whether for humans or pets, in their original, child-resistant containers with the label attached.
If pet medicines need to be mixed with food, make sure your children are in another room before giving your pet the mixture, and don’t leave any uneaten food with medicine in it where kids can find it. And if you are applying a topical medication (such as treatments for fleas) to a pet’s skin or fur, keep kids away from the animal until its coat is completely dry.
If you think your child may have swallowed pet medication, don’t wait for symptoms to develop, Spiller warns. Instead, call the national Poison Help Line number, 1-800-222-1222, right way.
For more information on avoiding accidental poisoning, visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Poison Control page.
February 27, 2020
Janet O’Dell, RN