Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Human medications that are applied to the skin can be dangerous for pets. Even tiny amounts of some topical drug preparations are toxic to dogs and cats.
Animals are exposed to topical medications by chewing a product tube, licking the product from a person’s skin, licking their fur after being touched by someone with the product on their hands, or possibly by absorbing the medication through their own skin.
If you use any topical medications, be aware of the possible risk to animals. Keep all medications out of your pets’ reach. Wash the product off your hands or wear gloves while applying it, and keep pets from licking skin and bedding that the product has touched.
If you think your pet has been exposed to a toxin, contact your veterinarian or animal poison control:
Calcipotriene and calcitriol are forms of vitamin D used to treat psoriasis. Animals that swallow topical preparations can develop abnormally high calcium levels and potentially life-threatening kidney damage. Symptoms include loss of appetite, vomiting, and increased urine volume.
Topical corticosteroids like betamethasone, clobetasol, hydrocortisone, and triamcinolone are used to treat various skin conditions. In animals, exposure can lead to a wide range of symptoms including increased urine volume, increased thirst, vomiting, and skin changes.
Animals exposed to topical hormone products containing estradiol and other forms of estrogen can develop hair loss, anemia, or low levels of platelets and white blood cells.
Fluorouracil cream is used to treat certain skin cancers. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reports that 5 dogs have died after ingesting small amounts of fluorouracil; 1 of the dogs died after simply puncturing the tube with its teeth. Symptoms in cats and dogs include vomiting, loss of balance, and seizures.
The hair loss treatment minoxidil (Rogaine) can cause severe heart problems in animals exposed to small amounts. At least 8 cats have died after their owners used topical minoxidil. Other cats and dogs have become seriously ill.
Pain Relievers: Local Anesthetics
Local anesthetics like benzocaine, lidocaine, and tetracaine (ingredients ending in ‑caine) are often included in over-the-counter products to treat pain from sunburn, insect bites, and so forth. If swallowed, these drugs can cause seizures and abnormal heart rhythm.
Pain Relievers: Nonsteroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs
Flurbiprofen and diclofenac are among the many nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) commonly used to treat pain. Some veterinary NSAIDs are safe to use in dogs, but most human NSAIDs are dangerous for animals, especially cats. The FDA has warned that topical flurbiprofen can cause serious illness or death in pets that are exposed to the product on a person’s skin. Many over-the-counter topical pain relievers contain NSAIDs, so read product labels carefully.
Retinoids like adapalene and tretinoin are used to treat acne and skin disorders and are included in some wrinkle remedies. Exposure can lead to liver damage in animals.
Zinc oxide is a common ingredient in over-the-counter sunscreens, diaper rash creams, and other products. Animals can vomit and have diarrhea after swallowing zinc oxide.
1. Tater KC, Gwaltney-Brant S, Wismer T. Dermatological topical products used in the US population and their toxicity to dogs and cats. Vet Dermatol. 2019;30(6):474-e140. doi:10.1111/vde.12796
2. FDA advice on pet exposure to prescription topical (human) cancer treatment: fluorouracil. US Food and Drug Administration. November 2, 2020. Accessed October 22, 2021. https://www.fda.gov/animal-veterinary/animal-health-literacy/fda-advice-pet-exposure-prescription-topical-human-cancer-treatment-fluorouracil
3. Tater KC, Gwaltney-Brant S, Wismer T. Topical minoxidil exposures and toxicoses in dogs and cats: 211 cases (2001-2019). J Am Anim Hosp Assoc. 2021;57(5):225-231. doi:10.5326/JAAHA-MS-7154
4. FDA consumer advice on pet exposure to prescription topical pain medications containing flurbiprofen. US Food and Drug Administration. October 1, 2019. Accessed October 22, 2021. https://www.fda.gov/animal-veterinary/animal-health-literacy/fda-consumer-advice-pet-exposure-prescription-topical-pain-medications-containing-flurbiprofen
5. Khan SA. Topical preparations (toxicity). Merck Veterinary Manual. August 2014. Accessed October 22, 2021. https://www.merckvetmanual.com/toxicology/toxicities-from-human-drugs/topical-preparations-toxicity
Photo by Lina Angelov on Unsplash
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
The contents of this blog are for information only and should not substitute for advice from a veterinarian who has examined the animal. All blog content is copyrighted by Mallard Creek Animal Hospital and may not be copied, reproduced, transmitted, or distributed without permission.