Are Generic Drugs Safe for Cats?

Lily, a mature black-and-white feline, meowed constantly and ate voraciously yet never seemed to gain weight. After several tests, results showed that Lily was suffering from hyperthyroidism, a thyroid gland disorder. The treatment options seemed like night and day in terms of cost: an expensive brand-name drug or a pocketbook-friendly generic version. For Lily’s elderly, budget-conscious owner, the choice was clear.

Lily wound up taking a drug called Methimazole, the generic version of a brand-name medication named Tapazole. The cost difference? $4 a month for the generic version instead of $60 a month for the branded product. Nevertheless, Lily’s owner was concerned by the safety of “generic.”

A Human Drug Connection
Lily’s veterinarian, Dr. Kristine Hoyt, who runs Cats on Call in Scarborough, Maine, eased the fears by explaining that both medications were developed and intended for humans. Because there’s no equivalent just for cats, they would rather treat Lily with the generic medicine, adjusting the dosage for the cat’s small, 13-pound body. Dr. Hoyt added that relying on generic drugs -- mostly from the world of human medicine -- to treat companion animals wasn’t at all uncommon.

Mary Lynch, a doctor of pharmacy at Cornell University Hospital for Animals in Ithaca, N.Y., agrees. “We use human drugs, including generics, very frequently in cats and dogs,” Dr. Lynch says. Developing a drug for a major illness, such as cancer and hyperthyroidism, involves massive costs, which often prevents companies from bringing an original, cat-specific drug to market. Under the Animal Medical Drug Utilization Clarification Act (ANDUCA), veterinarians can use human drugs in companion animals when the animals would suffer, or even potentially die, without treatment.

What’s in a Name?
“When you buy the brand, you buy the fancy packaging,” says Arnold Plotnick, DVM, a board-certified feline specialist in New York City. He says generic drugs work perfectly on both cats and humans. Two key points to remember are:

  • A generic drug is the same as the brand-name version. It must be bio-equivalent to the original, meaning that the active ingredients are identical. It also has to have the same strength and address the same symptoms. Additionally, generic drugs should be metabolized by the body in a similar way.
  • A human drug can be approved for use in pets, providing owners with generic medication options. To market a human drug specifically for cats, a company must file a “new drug” application through the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine. The ingredients and manufacturing process are tested, just as they were during the original testing of the human drug. Dosages may then change to match a cat’s needs.

Cats Require Special Care
A generic drug made for a human might not go down so well with a stubborn cat. The few generics on the market specifically for cats are often flavored or coated to help cats swallow them. But because the majority of drugs that veterinarians use are of the human variety -- be they generic or brand name -- they’re often bitter to a cat. Dr. Plotnick often chops or grinds the pills to make them somewhat palatable for kitty. “I’ll make it up as a liquid so I can squirt it into the cat’s mouth,” he says. “Since I know the generic works, I don’t have any fear of it not being effective.”

Dr. Hoyt points to another fact about cats: They metabolize numerous drugs very differently than many other species do, and some cats experience side effects with any drug administered.

More Options on the Horizon
Some companies are now focused on the development of generic drugs specifically for animals. These medications usually still derive from branded human drugs, according to Jean Hoffman, founder and CEO of Putney Inc., a Portland, Maine-based company that aims to develop generic versions of commonly used drugs. “There is a tremendous need to bring to market dosing and flavors that are right for cats, and we’ve focused on doing that,” she says.

Dr. Hoyt points to the June approval of Felimazole, a feline-specific drug that Lily could have taken. It’s dosed specifically for cats, which means you and your veterinarian won’t have to chop it up. And the pill is sugar-coated to mask the bitter taste of the drug. That should make the cat patient a whole lot happier and more willing to swallow it.

“Now I don’t have to worry about client stress, and I know that my patient is getting a drug at the right dose, in the right concentration,” says Dr. Hoyt.

Top 5 Summer Cat Health Concerns

Summer may be your favorite time of year, but for your cat, this season can mean a host of health troubles. Fleas top the concerns, along with others that can make these months miserable for your feline. Here’s what you need to know to tackle cat health threats:

No. 1: Fleas
Fleas thrive in summer heat and humidity. Although over-the-counter products and flea collars may help, topical prescription medications offer the best protection, says Susan Nelson, DVM, clinical assistant professor at Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine. The medication is applied directly to your cat's skin to kill existing fleas and prevent future infestations. The length of time to apply this medicine depends on where you live, so be sure to consult with your veterinarian. Flea medicine isn’t just for outdoor cats, either. "Indoor-only cats should also be on flea prevention medication, as fleas could enter your home on your shoes, clothes or via an outdoor pet's fur," says Dr. Nelson.

No. 2: Allergies
Excessive scratching, biting at the base of the tail and red, inflamed skin are allergy symptoms. The most likely triggers? Fleas and pollen. For allergies related to the latter, cut your cat's exposure to pollen by regularly changing air conditioning filters and washing your cat's bedding, dusting, vacuuming and keeping your cat inside at all times, says Diane Delmain, DVM, medical director of Bay Hill Cat Hospital in Orlando, Fla. Your veterinarian may also prescribe medication or give allergy shots to treat pollen-related health problems in your cat.

No. 3: Hairballs
Although spring is the main shedding season for cats, indoor cats also shed when it's hot, ingesting more hair and spitting up hairballs. Frequently brushing your cat helps. You can also investigate some of the hairball prevention products on the market, including flavored lubricants, treats and fiber tablets. "It's a matter of finding one that both the cat and the owner agree upon," Dr. Delmain says. 

No. 4: Heat-related Illnesses
Dehydration and heat stroke can plague pets. Although they are less likely than dogs to be in situations where heat is an issue, cats can still get sick from heat. Traveling or having to leave your cat outside for extended periods -- such as while you're having your house worked on -- could put your pet at risk. Always make sure your cat has water and a cool place to rest. If you have air-conditioning, keep it running during heat waves. If you don't have air-conditioning, turn on an indoor fan. And if you're traveling by air with your cat, check the airline's policies about warm-weather travel. (Some airlines won't let pets fly if the temperature is too high, simply because the heat may cause illness or even death.)

No. 5: Fireworks
Although we tend to associate fireworks with Fourth of July, these colorful yet noisy displays are often featured at baseball games, outdoor concerts and other events too throughout the summer. The din of these celebrations can make cats anxious and skittish, forcing them into hiding. Close your doors, windows and curtains during firework displays. Also turn on soothing music or the TV to help drown out the noise, especially if you're going to be gone when the fireworks are scheduled to go off.

Overall, keeping your cat indoors is the best prevention for any health concern. If you want to still provide your cat with the fresh air and sunshine of summer, consider installing a screened-in enclosure. As Dr. Nelson explains, “You can then give your cat a taste of the outdoors and still offer protection.” 

Top Cat Health Concerns in Spring

A cloud of doom cast over the clear spring skies of Georgia five years ago when a fatal cat disease, Cytauxzoonosis -- which can lead to severe malnutrition, dehydration and more -- swept through the state’s northern region. “A couple of cases were diagnosed here, too,” remembers James Brousse, DVM, owner of The Cat and Dog Clinic in Athens, Ga. “Some cats died after a few days of showing symptoms.”

The culprit? Ticks that carry and spread infectious diseases. These pesky parasites are a top health concern, along with other parasites, bacteria and viruses. The good news? Awareness of these threats can protect your cat’s health throughout the season.

Ticks and the Other Four Primary Culprits
Below, Dr. Brousse shares the dangers of five health threats that could affect your kitty this spring:

Fleas A recent survey revealed that 49 percent of participating veterinarians believe fleas are the top health danger of the spring. Multi-pet households beware: “Cats can get them from dogs, since dogs get walked outside and are more prone to catching them,” says Dr. Brousse. Swift and minuscule, a flea can also jump off human clothes and latch onto your pet for months. With one flea producing about fifty eggs a day, the population multiplies quickly, spilling into the surrounding environment. Aside from causing irritation, fleas may also transmit fatal bacterial diseases, such as plague.

Bacterial and Viral Diseases Feline plague, one of many painful bacterial diseases, is particularly insidious. Spread by rodent fleas, this disease may progress quickly if it isn’t caught early. Symptoms include swollen glands and extreme exhaustion. Lyme disease, a more common bacterial disease, is transmitted by ticks. It can result in crippling arthritis and even permanent disability. Mosquitoes can transmit the West Nile Virus, a rare viral disease picked up from birds.

Ticks In the warmer months, ticks can be a big problem for cats, especially in suburban areas. “Ticks come from deer and jump on cats’ ears or perineum -- the area around the anus where there’s no hair,” Dr. Brousse explains. Slower-moving and larger in size, ticks attach themselves to cats and feed off their blood, spreading serious illnesses, like Cytauxzoonosis or Lyme disease.

Mosquitoes A mosquito bite can infect your cat with the West Nile Virus, but more commonly, with heartworms -- parasites that lodge themselves in a cat’s lungs and heart and mature to up to six inches. “It only takes one or two worms to get into the cat and cause a problem,” says Dr. Brousse. Symptoms include haphazard vomiting, a slight wheezing and even sudden death.

Allergies Cats can develop allergies to air particles, just as humans do. “What we’re going to see is allergic reactions to various pollens, especially in areas where you get really heavy blooms,” predicts Dr. Brousse. Allergens include pollen, grass, weeds and even flea saliva. Cats sensitive to these irritants may itch and scratch severely, possibly causing hair loss and open sores that could lead to a bacterial infection.

Winning the Battle
Preventive action can help keep your cat safe this spring. Here are steps you can take:

  • Keep your cat indoors Staying indoors decreases kitty’s chances of catching diseased prey or being infected by fleas, ticks and mosquitoes.
  • Visit the veterinarian “Take your cat in for a complete physical annually, or better yet, twice a year,” advises Dr. Brousse. Your veterinarian will run important tests, such as an antibody test for heartworm, which can catch infections in their early stages.
  • Administer preventive medicine A monthly heartworm and flea preventative, which comes in the form of a chewable tablet or liquid applied topically to the back of your cat’s neck, can help maintain its health.
  • Check for flea dirt Comb through your pet’s coat with a flea comb. Dab the brush onto a white paper towel. Dark specks could be flea dirt, or dried pieces of blood. To be sure, spray the paper towel with water. Regular dirt will remain the same color; flea dirt will dissolve to red.
  • Check your pet daily for ticks Gently massage your pet; if you feel a lump, part the coat to examine the area. Use a tick remover -- not pinchers, which can hurt your pet -- to remove the tick. Wrap the tick in a tissue and flush it. Disinfect the tick remover. If redness persists in the affected area, call your vet.
  • Clean your house and your pet often Vacuuming is the No. 1 weapon against fleas, and an overall clean environment reduces cat allergens. If your cat suffers from allergies or parasites, bathing may relieve irritation and prevent scratching that could lead to disease.

It’s better to err in the side of caution, advises Dr. Brousse. With proper care and vigilance, you and your pet can both enjoy the gifts of spring without worrying about its feline health threats.

Five Reasons to Keep Your Cat Indoors

When cat owner Bethany Hart, 35, of Farmington, Mich., moved to a new home last year, she decided to let her curious tabby cat Cleo explore the landscape. “I thought he would circle the house and come back in,” she remembers. “But an hour later, he was nowhere to be found. When he finally came back late that night, his ear was bloody and mutilated from a fight with another animal. I took him to the veterinarian to treat the wound, and I haven't let him out since.”

L.A.-based cat behaviorist Marva Marrow, along with The Humane Society, endorses Hart's decision to keep her furry friend inside. “Cats are curious, and they like bathing in the sun, but you can satisfy both those needs by making sure they have a window to look out of and a sunny space on the floor to stretch out. These allow cats to enjoy the benefits of the outdoors safely.” Below, Marrow explains the five best reasons to keep your cat in its rightful place -- your home.

Cars Not only are outdoor cats regularly hit by cars, but they also get into trouble when seeking shelter on top of tires and close to engines. “In the cold, cats will crawl into any open space in a car,” says Marrow. “If someone gets in and turns the car on, it can be deadly for a cat.”

Chemicals Suburban lawns are often sprayed with pesticides and are therefore not ideal stomping grounds for your feline. The chemicals can make your pet ill. Cats that eat poisoned rodents or ingest other toxins from dumpsters or garages can also become very sick. “Cats are very attracted to antifreeze,” says Marrow. “They like to lick it, and it can kill them.”

Coyotes Maybe there are no coyotes roaming the outskirts of your yard, but any animal can be a danger to your cat, from dogs and raccoons to their own kind. Cats get into trouble upon entering yards patrolled by canines, and they are also prone to fighting with other neighborhood cats. “Cats are very territorial, and they can be wounded in fights with other cats. They can wind up with abscesses and become deathly ill,” says Marrow.

Strangers Hard as it is to believe, not everybody is a cat lover. If your pet's path crosses the wrong neighbor, it may be in danger if that person decides to spray it with a cleaning agent or worse. Just as you wouldn't leave your cat in a stranger's care, you should be wary of letting it interact willy-nilly with people you don't know.

Confusion While cats are famous for their sense of direction, kitties that are injured or scared can lose their bearings and become lost. Their access to your home can get blocked, such as by rush hour traffic, or they may be unable to get down from a high place, like a roof or a tree. “The cautionary tale of the cat rescued by firemen is not a myth!” emphasizes Marrow.

Your cat's home is its kingdom, and the outside world is full of threats to its health and happiness. To keep your cat from making a break for it, make sure open windows have screens, teach your family to be alert to Fluffy's whereabouts before opening doors, and use a kitty crate to transport your cat back and forth from the vet. Remember that an indoor cat can't miss what it's never had. Says Marrow: “That's why I don't recommend walking a cat on a leash.”

When Hairballs Become Hazardous

Hairballs are the butt of many a cat joke, even though the telltale hack-hack-hacking may seem commonplace to most feline owners. Cats are fastidious self-groomers, so it’s this habit that causes hairballs -- swallowed loose fur that is not completely digested. The problem usually warrants no cause for alarm, but in some cases, hairballs become too big for a cat’s digestive tract and cause blockage that can be life-threatening. It’s important for any cat owner to know why hairballs form, why they’re so common and when they can be dangerous. 

Harmful Hairballs
“Most cats will either vomit the hair or pass it in their stool,” explains Tami Groger, DVM, associate veterinarian at Bay Hill Cat Hospital in Orlando, Fla. The feline digestive system is designed to handle hairballs (called trichobezoars by doctors) but only up to a certain size. “We had a long-haired kitty who stopped eating for three days and just did not look comfortable,” recalls Bernadine Cruz, DVM, of Laguna Hills Animal Hospital in California. “Everything seemed normal, but when I [felt] her abdomen, there was something there under the rib cage. We took an X-ray and saw this big thing. We did surgery to remove one huge hairball -- at a cost of $2000.”

The kitty recovered fully, but the owner may still be recovering from that bill.

Another problem caused by hairballs is that sometimes their symptoms appear similar to respiratory problems, such as asthma, which also require a veterinarian’s attention. Keeping hairballs to a minimum will therefore help your veterinarian diagnose asthma more quickly, should your cat develop it.

All cats get hairballs, says Dr. Groger, but “they are more prevalent in the long-haired breeds -- Persians, Himalayans, Maine Coons and domestic long hairs.” She adds, however, that she has “seen problems with short-haired cats, as well.”

Hazardous Hairball Warning Signs      
Three key symptoms can distinguish a not-so-worrisome hairball from one that may require immediate medical attention. These are:

  1. Continued retching that does not culminate with the expulsion of a hairball
  2. Frequent diarrhea
  3. Loss of appetite following repeated hairball episodes

All three of these symptoms could mean that your cat’s throat, stomach or intestines are blocked by a hairball obstruction. If your cat exhibits any of these symptoms, schedule a visit to your veterinarian’s office as soon as possible.

How to Prevent Hairballs
The best defense against hairballs, dangerous or not, is to keep your cat from getting them in the first place or to make sure they can be digested. Here are some tips recommended by veterinarians.

  • Brush your kitty “You really need to get down to the skin to loosen some of the fur,” says Dr. Cruz, who recommends using a soft rubbery brush for the task. Follow up with gentle combing using a fine-tooth comb. Older cats especially need this care, she says, as their digestive systems slow down with age and they’re less able to get rid of hairballs.
  • Feed your cat a specially formulated hairball care food Look for foods with beet pulp, carbohydrate blends and a fruit and vegetable extract known as FOS, which promotes healthy stomach bacteria. This combination of ingredients not only helps reduce fur balls, but it also enhances your cat's ability to absorb nutrients, provides bulk to move food through the intestines, promotes colon health and reduces waste and litter box odors.
  • For repeat hackers, increase their fiber intake Increasing fiber in your cat’s diet can help. The fiber will help hold onto hair and aid it in passing through the digestive track. Dr. Cruz suggests adding bits of asparagus, small amounts of canned pumpkin or oat grass to your cat’s hairball care commercial diet.
  • Offer a little oil You might also add a very small amount -- around half a teaspoon -- of petroleum jelly, olive oil or butter to your cat’s food. This too will help push through fur in the digestive system.
  • Purchase a commercial hairball remedy Commercial hairball remedies often contain similar fiber and oil ingredients combined with flavor enhancers to tempt your cat. Look for them at your local pet store. Just be sure to follow the enclosed listed directions carefully.
  • Keep a clean house Don’t allow your kitty access to pieces of string or thread around the house. If ingested, these can get wrapped up with swallowed fur and cause an obstruction.

Hairballs are an unpleasant side effect of your kitty’s natural inclination to stay clean and beautiful. Our job as cat owners is to allow that self-grooming but take responsible steps to make sure it doesn’t result in a dangerous, albeit hairy, health hazard.