We’ve all heard stories of someone being prescribed the wrong medicine, or the wrong dose of the right medicine, and how that medication error had harmful or even fatal consequences. When this happens with human patients, the next step is often a malpractice lawsuit against the doctor, hospital, or pharmacy responsible.
But what happens when the patient is your beloved family dog or cat? Sadly, medication errors happen in veterinary medicine, too, and no less an authority than the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) is warning consumers to double-check on medications prescribed for their pets, and to be aware of common mistakes – in veterinary offices, in pharmacies, and at home – that can harm our pets.
Medication errors are easily made
According to Linda Kim-Jung, from the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM), one of the things that can lead to medication errors is that prescriptions written by veterinarians are often filled in the same pharmacies that fill prescriptions for humans. “Unclear medical abbreviations are a common cause of the medication errors we find,” Kim-Jung says, and it’s a problem that goes beyond poor penmanship. Doctors are taught one method of writing prescriptions and using abbreviations on them in medical school, and veterinarians are taught different methods.
For example, in the course of investigating reports of medication errors involving animal drugs, the CVM found that the abbreviation “SID” (which means once daily) was often misinterpreted by pharmacists as “BID” (two times daily) or “QID” (four times daily). This has resulted in overdoses, which can be severe in animals, because side effects of even beneficial drugs increase with the dosage given of those drugs. Kim-Jung points out that other medication errors are caused by mistaking abbreviations such as “U” (for units) for “0” (zero), or by mistaking the abbreviation for microgram (“mcg”) for the abbreviation for milligram (“mg”). Other errors arise from misreading numerical values; for example, prescriptions for a 5.0 mg dose have been mistaken for 50 mg, resulting in the pet receiving ten times the proper medication. Also, many medications have names that look similar, so if a pharmacist can’t read the veterinarian’s handwriting, he may select the wrong one.
Part of the problem is that there are many opportunities for error to creep into the process. There can be a typo in the veterinary clinic, or in the pharmacy when typing up the medication’s label. In the pharmacies themselves, the packaging of many drugs is too similar, which can cause someone to select the wrong box of medicine.
The good news is that you can help to prevent these errors
Kim-Jung and the FDA have compiled lists of suggestions that can help you as a pet owner to prevent such errors. The first step, she says, is to ask important questions of the veterinarian when he or she prescribes a medication. For example, you should ask questions like:
- What is the name of this drug and what is it supposed to do?
- Are there any side effects or possible reactions I should look for?
- How much of the drug should I give, and how many times a day?
- Should my pet get this drug before, during, or after meals?
- How should the drug be stored (does it require refrigeration or storage away from heat)?
- What should I do if I forget a dose or have to skip one because I’m away?
- Should I give my pet all of the medication, even if he seems to be getting better?
Another thing that the CVM recommends is to keep a list of all medications your pet is taking currently or has taken in the past, and any serious or chronic health problems in the past. This way, if you are seeing a new veterinarian, you have this information at hand to present so that they are aware of it.
There are also things you can do in your home to prevent medication errors there. For example, you can avoid mix-ups by storing your pets’ medications in a different place than your human medications and by keeping them in their original packages. Don’t give any medications to your pets unless instructed to by the veterinarian, and don’t share drugs prescribed for one pet to another one.
Our pets are part of our families. Following these simple guidelines can help us to make sure they remain healthy.