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Veterinary Spin Doctors (How Safe Are Pet Medications)

Pop quiz! The manufacturer’s insert in a bottle of a veterinary pharmaceutical that’s been approved for use in animals for years says “no adverse effects have been found in animals taking this drug”. How certain can I be that this drug will have no negative side effects for my cat?

question WTFA. It’s uncertain whether it will cause unwanted side effects.

B. 100% positive that it’s safe.

C. It’s probably safe, but we can’t be entirely sure.

diabetes-insulin-bottle-needleThe answer is “A. It’s uncertain whether it will cause unwanted side effects.” The way the statement is written, the manufacturer’s claim could mean anything from “100% positive that it’s safe” to “we don’t know whether it will cause side effects”.

Below are some of the reasons why I research all treatments before giving them to my cats, even when my veterinarian – whom I inherently trust – gives me a good overview. I like to know what we’re getting ourselves into before we’ve gotten into it.

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How many veterinary studies has this drug been subjected to?

Based on the wording of the statement above, there could be any number of studies – from one to hundreds – on how this drug effects non-humans.

My mind is most at-ease when I can review the results of a handful of long-term studies that identify possible correlations between side effects and specific doses of a specific drug. Obviously, the fewer the studies – especially long-term studies – the more challenging it is to know the risks associated with a treatment.

There are situations when the potential benefits are big enough that a lack of lab studies won’t stop me from using a certain treatment. But in that case, I pay extra-special attention to any potential unwanted side-effects and I report them to my vet.

Has the drug been studied on cats?

Based on the wording of the statement above, the answer might be any of the following:

    1. This drug has not been studied on any companion animals. Since it’s approved for use, though, it was probably studied on lab mice or rats. It might have also been studied for use in livestock animals.
    2. This drug has been studied in one type of companion animal. (Dogs are used most often in companion animal studies.)
    3. This drug has been studied in many types of companion animals.

I’m careful when giving my cats drugs or supplements that have not been studied on cats because each species’ physiology is unique. For example, grapes and chocolate are toxic to some animals, but not others. My body processes different chemicals, elements, and ingredients in ways that are different than my cats’ bodies.

As I mentioned earlier, sometimes the potential benefits are worth giving my cats treatments that haven’t been studied on cats. I just pay extra-special attention to anything that might indicate that a certain treatment is not a good fit for my cat.

Who performed the studies on this drug?insurance-policy-document-money-meds

Based on the wording of the statement above, any of the following could have performed or funded the drug studies:

    1. The drug company that’s making and selling the drug.
    2. An independent company that does veterinary studies.
    3. A government agency.
    4. An independent institution, such as a university or medical lab.

The FDA admits that the “interrelationship and interaction between the research sponsor (e.g., drug, biologic and device manufacturers), the clinical investigator and the Institutional Review Board (IRB) may be very complex. The regulations do not prohibit direct sponsor-IRB contacts.” http://www.fda.gov/regulatoryinformation/guidances/ucm126425.htm

I look at study results with a grain of salt when a study is funded by agencies that benefit from a treatment being found to be “safe”. I do not totally discount these studies, but I do keep in mind the likelihood that study results are described in a way that downplays or emits information that I might want to know.

Do we know for sure that my cat will experience no side effects?blood sample - free from msoffice

Based on the wording of the statement above, the answer might be:

    1. No side effects showed up in any of the studies.
    2. Side effects did show up, but there’s no proof that they’re definitely caused by this treatment.
    3. No side effects showed up in the brief time covered by the studies. There may be long-term side effects, but no long-term studies have been done.

This all seems a bit shady and unsafe

To be fair, it’s very expensive and takes a long time to do good, independent studies. Particularly when it comes to studying side effects, which often only show up after someone has been on a certain treatment for years. It’s rare for veterinary studies to last that long.

In most countries, medications for humans are regulated in a pretty different way than medications for animals. Some drugs are used in veterinary settings based on how they are used in human medicine. I, personally, consider this to be a bit risky because human bodies process chemicals differently than bodies of other animals. Chocolate and caffeine are great examples of this.

In fact, when one drug (Gabapentin AKA Neurontin) was first used by veterinarians, it was considered to be safe for all animals no matter what the condition of their liver and kidneys, because humans’ bodies completely and safely processed 100% of the medication. Years later, the results of a study on this particular drug in dogs revealed that this medication was processed much more rapidly in dogs and that only 80% is absorbed by their bodies. Immediately after the results of this study were published, veterinarians stopped using this drug in dogs who have liver or kidney issues. For what it’s wroth, I have yet to see any studies on this drug in cats; nobody knows how feline kidneys and livers process this chemical. Anecdotal evidence indicates that there are serious, irreversible side effects (blindness and deafness) in both dogs and cats.

So how do we keep our companion animals safe?

I research all veterinary treatments before giving them to my companions, even when my veterinarian – whom I inherently trust – gives me a good overview of the treatment. At a minimum, I search for information about each treatment in these two databases:

  • PubMed (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/advanced) – includes more than 24 million citations for biomedical literature from MEDLINE, life science journals, and books. I always do an advanced search and filter my results to the subject “Veterinary Science”.
  • VIN (http://www.veterinarypartner.com/) – the world’s first and largest veterinary database and community. It includes millions of citations from medical and life science journals and published studies that are related to animal health, medications, therapies, surgery, behavior, and safety.

When I have time, I also do searches in more general databases and on the web at-large to help me find information that has not yet been studied or published.

I sometimes give my cats supplements or medications that have not been studied on cats. To avoid those treatments would mean ruling out many safe, beneficial supplements and medications. In fact, it’s common find that there have only been a few studies, and usually on dogs. There are also times when the only info we really have to rely on is anecdotal evidence.

Don’t underestimate the value of anecdotal evidence. Industries often need a whole lotta anecdotal evidence before any studies are ever done. That said, I want to be well aware of this when I’m basing a feline treatment plan on anecdotal evidence alone.

Some vets (not mine) rely solely on information presented in marketing materials – such as pharmaceutical, supplement, and food sales reps, brochures, or inserts. Since these materials are used to sell as much of a product as possible, the language can be very misleading. Reputable companies will not intentionally mislead doctors and consumers, of course.

But, realistically, some companies focus so much on generating income that they overlook information that might make consumers or doctors hesitate to try their products. I’ve seen lots of print materials from pharmaceutical, supplement, and food companies that push the envelope in terms of what they’re legally allowed to say about their products.

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