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Researchers say people are using fish antibiotics and pet pain-relief medications for their own illnesses and injuries. Getty Images
  • Researchers report that online reviews indicate people are using fish antibiotics for their own illnesses.
  • There are also indications pet owners are using prescription pain medication intended for their animals.
  • Experts say serious health consequences can arise from people using medications prescribed by veterinarians for pets.

Kathleen Pancake didn’t have a lot of money in her bank account on this particular day when she suffered a painful injury while lifting the crate carrying her newly neutered dog into her car.

At once, the Indiana woman did what made sense to her and what more people are reportedly doing in place of seeing a doctor or even “borrowing” prescription medication from a friend or family member.

Pancake popped one of the Ultrain pain relievers the veterinarian had just provided for her pet.

“It’s just par for the course when you don’t have money and need help,” she told Healthline.

Pancake’s action speaks to a trend apparently beginning to show in U.S. medicine: people turning to their pets’ prescriptions — particularly antibiotics — to treat illnesses.

While the known cases are still few, a study presented at the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists semi-annual conference earlier this month reported that some Americans may be taking fish antibiotics rather than seeing their doctor to reduce their medical expenses.

The study hasn’t been published yet in a peer-reviewed journal.

It was co-authored by P. Brandon Bookstaver, PharmD, a pharmacist and director of residency and fellowship training at the University of South Carolina College of Pharmacy.

Bookstaver looked at online reviews of fish antibiotics, which are readily available online with no prescription and are cheaper than human drugs.

Bookstaver reported that “a small but significant percentage of consumers reviewed the antibiotics for human use.”

Notice of this phenomenon first came to light when Vermont author Rachel Sharp was researching the idea of postapocalyptic healthcare for her “Planetary Tarantella” trilogy.

When she found folks reviewing fish antibiotics in what seemed to be code for human use, she tweeted her discovery.

She says she was shocked by the reviews, but as a person living with chronic illness, she felt compelled to share examples of people’s experiences.

Her tweet went viral.

Sharp was inundated with retweets coupled with folks sharing how they’d had to make that choice. It floored her.

“There are apocalypse prepper blogs out there that recommend stockpiling fish antibiotics in case of a future in which medical care is unavailable,” she told Healthline. “The Amazon reviews demonstrate that that future is already here.”

In Pancake’s case, that wasn’t the first time she’d made that choice.

Expensive doctor visits are the main reason, she says. But, she adds, she’s often been able to talk to a medical provider to be sure what she’s choosing to take won’t harm her.

“They cannot tell you to do it,” she said, “but they can tell you if it will harm you. Of course, it helps to have a preexisting relationship with a provider who knows your situation.”

But those who study antibiotics are concerned at the possible trend.

“Taking any prescription drug without a proper diagnosis from a healthcare practitioner can be dangerous. In the case of antibiotics, it can mean inappropriate treatment for a serious infection,” said Michael Ganio, PharmD, MS, BCPS, FASHP, the director of pharmacy practice and quality at the American Society of Hospital Pharmacists.

“Antibiotics should be carefully selected based on a patient’s symptoms and medical history, including allergies,” Ganio told Healthline.

“The additional concern with this study is that there is no oversight for these medications. There are no guarantees that the products contain the labeled medication and strength. The products may even contain ingredients that are harmful to humans,” he said.

“Self-medication and the availability of antibiotics without healthcare oversight might contribute to increasing antimicrobial resistance and delayed appropriate treatment,” Bookstaver said when he presented the study.

“We were particularly concerned that the high volume of positive feedback on the comments about human use might encourage others to attempt to use these drugs.”

One such review for fish antibiotics reads like this: “My ‘fish’ has their wisdom teeth coming in and caused an infection. This cleared the infection perfectly.”

Ganio says that while the incidents shown in the study were few, it came as a surprise.

“The rate of human consumption of fish antibiotics in this study was low, but I was still surprised that this was happening at all,” he said.

Ganio does have compassion for the situation.

“I can imagine any number of reasons for improperly using fish antibiotics: lack of timely access to a primary care provider, general convenience, or the cost of the provider visit and prescribed medication,” he said.

But Ganio urges people to stay away from medications intended for animals.

“The accuracy and security of the drug supply chain is of utmost importance. Concerns about counterfeit or contaminated human drugs and dietary supplements are real and have resulted in federal laws and regulations.

“Products intended for fish have none of these protections and represent a risk when taken by humans. Patients should only take prescription drugs that have been prescribed to them by a qualified, licensed practitioner and dispensed from a licensed pharmacy,” Ganio said.

But Pancake says those who have little choice wish things were different.

She says she’d like the U.S. healthcare system to adopt more of a European model, where “a pharmacist can discuss the situation with a patient and help choose an antibiotic and even painkiller, such as codeine, without a doctor’s input.”

“It’s obvious that something has to change,” she said.