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One important trick of the trade for a veterinarian like me who's always in the media is knowing when something other vets take for granted will raise an eyebrow among pet lovers. That was the case years ago when I wrote about prescribing
Viagra — for neutered male
Why would a vet prescribe a medication best known as a solution for erectile dysfunction in humans? Because in canines of both sexes, Viagra (sildenafil citrate) can be used to treat pulmonary
high blood pressure in the arteries of the lungs. Increased blood flow has its uses in other areas of the body as well, you see.
But the Viagra story is more than just interesting veterinary trivia. It’s also helpful in explaining the many kinds of medications used in veterinary medicine, and how a basic knowledge of those medications can help you better care for your pet.
Viagra is not the only human medication veterinarians can — and do — prescribe. Most pet owners don’t realize this, but aside from flea-and-tick-control products, almost all of the medications their pets receive are crossovers from human medicine. My colleague
Dr. Duncan Ferguson at the
University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine once told me that 80 to 90 percent of the drugs used in veterinary medicine come from human medicine, and the percentage gets even higher in more specialized areas of veterinary medicine, such as oncology.
This so-called "off-label" use of human drugs allows veterinarians to treat conditions (and species) that might not be priorities for big drug companies. If a veterinarian believes that a particular human medication can help a pet, she’ll prescribe it.
Knowing how and why certain drugs are prescribed or recommended can help pet owners understand health care options — including some that save money. A good vet will discuss the medications she's prescribing, tell you what side effects to look for, and encourage you to call her with questions or concerns, but it's also important for you to educate yourself about the basic types of drugs available for your pet.
As in human medicine, the medications your veterinarian works with fall into two basic categories: prescription and nonprescription, or OTC (for "over the counter"). Prescription drugs break down additionally into those that address conditions in animals only, and human medications routinely prescribed for animals. Both categories of medication are often available in brand-name and generic forms.
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