Many people don't know all that much much about medicines for cats. If their cat is seriously ill, they take it to the vet, and then follow his or her advice. Of course, this is a good thing to do. If they think about it, they assume that the drugs for cats will be the same as those for dogs, and probably those for people too. And for minor ailments...well, surely it's OK to use something that's designed for dogs, or even the same things that we use, isn't it?
No, it most definitely is not alright to do that! Some medicines which are used for people or dogs are definitely harmful for cats. And while doing what your vet advises is always sesinsible, it helps to know something about the subject. So here is a brief guide...
Some medicines have to be prescribed by your vet, and are not available over the counter. Their supply is controlled by regulations laid down by the Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD). The VMD will place a drug into a category, depending on the controls that are required for its safe use. Most medicines that vets use come under the category 'POM-V', or prescription only medicines. Vets can prescribe human-licensed drugs, but only for use on animals under their care.
Vets have a duty to only supply prescription drugs to animals under their care. A prescription may only be supplied for the minimum amount of drugs required for treatment, or until the next review is due for long term medication.
Some drugs are available more cheaply over the internet, and if your cat is on long term treatment, you may wish to consider this option. You will still need to get a prescription from your vet, and they are legally obliged to give it to you if you request it, but many vets will charge for this service. Take care when buying drugs over the internet, and ensure you only buy from reputable companies.
As with people, some categories of medicines can be sold over the counter, ie without a prescription. There are other products which straddle a grey area between health products and medicines, such as vitamins and herbal preparations. These do not need licensing, but are not allowed to make any medicinal claims to treat disease.
Once they have decided on the appropriate treatment, vets are legally obliged to prescribe medicines in the order of the 'cascade'...
When a vet decides to use an unlicensed drug, eg if no appropriate licensed product exists, it is important that they obtain informed consent from the cat's owner. Owners should ensure that they have the information to be able to make a judgement about the risks of using such a product. That is why it is good to have a basic knowledge of this topic in advance!
Never use medicines that have not been specifically prescribed for your cat. Cats are particularly sensitive to side effects from drugs. Do not assume that because something is entirely safe for humans, it will be safe for cats. For example, paracetamol is highly toxic to cats.
Follow your vet's instructions, and read any information leaflet carefully. If you are unsure what to do, refer back to your vet. If something looks wrong, check that too, as mistakes can be made. For example, I was once given some tablets which looked far too big to be given to a cat. I checked, and the receptionist has made a mistake and given me the wrong size! It wasn't harmful at all, but it could have been.
Adverse reactions can occur with any drugs. Some may be relatively mild and expected, while others may require a change in the medicine used. Some reactions can even be life threatening, so don't assume that this isn't important. There is a reporting scheme for adverse reactions to veterinary drugs, which alerts the authorities if there is a problem. Anyone can report a suspected adverse reaction via the VMD website at
Be very careful when buying products over the counter. If they are ineffective, your cat may not be receiving adequate treatment. Do not buy products designed for dogs, such as spot-on flea treatments or collars, because some of these are very dangerous for cats. If you have products for dogs in the household, keep them in a different place to prevent them being used on cats by mistake.
Don't expect your vet to dispense antibiotics if they are not really necessary. Antibiotic resistance is becoming a real threat to animal health, as it is to human health. If antibiotics are prescribed, make sure you give them for the correct length of time, even if your cat appears to have recovered before you finish the course.
Veterinary medicine is constantly changing and developing. It is already possible for your cat to receive a long acting antibiotic injection that can give two weeks worth of medication in a single injection. There are new palatable forms of some drugs which were previously only available in tablet form, which is good news to those of us who struggle to persuade our cats to take pills. Spot-on preparations have revolutionised parasite control. And for owners of diabetic cats who struggle to give the correct amount of insulin, there is an insulin pen that simplifies dosing.
There is likely to be many new developments like this in the future, and this can only be an advantage for us and our cats. Technology is moving forward quickly, and this applies to the field of veterinary medicine too.