In December, 2004, Sue Draeger, of Curtice, noticed her black Labrador retriever, Murphy, was sore from arthritis. Eager to alleviate its pain, she took the dog to her veterinarian, who prescribed a common pain killer, Rimadyl (Carprofen). In the next three weeks, Murphy's health declined so rapidly that Draeger had the dog put to sleep.
"After three or four doses of Rimadyl over six days, all of a sudden, she started going downhill, fast," Draeger said of Murphy. "She was just not herself. She was laying down a lot. On Christmas Eve, she had a seizure. Before I gave her Rimadyl, she used to swim in my pond. She was a great dog.”
Draeger, a registered nurse, suspects Murphy may have had an adverse reaction to Rimadyl after she learned of the drug’s potentially dangerous side effects on the Internet.
Rimadyl, made by Pfizer Animal Health, belongs to a class of Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) prescribed to control osteoarthritis and post-surgical pain in dogs. While they are proven in many instances to be effective, several dogs have suffered seizures, internal bleeding, and liver and kidney failure from the drugs. Many have died.
Draeger, and others whose pets have had adverse reactions to NSAIDs, share gut-wrenching guilt for unwittingly contributing to the injury or death of their dogs, unaware of the drugs’ possible side effects.
Sadly, Draeger's story is a familiar one.
Jean Townsend, of Johns Island, South Carolina, still feels guilty, she said, for giving Rimadyl to her chocolate Labrador retriever, George, for arthritis.
The dog died of massive internal bleeding and liver failure soon after being prescribed the drug in 1997. Townsend joined a class action lawsuit against Pfizer in 1999 for failing to warn pet owners about the drug’s risks. Pfizer eventually settled out of court, without admitting wrongdoing.
“George was never tested to see if he was even a candidate for the drug,” said Townsend, who later established a message board for dog owners, DogHealth2. “George didn’t have a chance. When I lost him, I lost a part of myself. His death has changed my life forever. I had a hand in killing my beloved companion – and that hurts.”
A veterinarian who looked at George’s necropsy (autopsy) report said the drug “literally blew him apart inside,” Townsend told The Press. “I cringe every time I think about what my George went through – and the fact that it was my doing – makes it even worse.”
Lola Quinlan, of Jupiter, Florida, took her 10-year-old German shepherd, Sam, to the veterinarian’s to treat a sore leg. After being prescribed Rimadyl, the dog became ill, dazed, and lethargic, lost its appetite, had excessive thirst, and loose stools. Tests showed it had developed kidney problems, said Quinlan. When the dog’s health deteriorated further, Sam was euthanized, just days after getting the drug.
She is convinced it was the Rimadyl.
“I am certain the drugs were the leading cause of his premature demise. This dog was extremely healthy. Never had a sick day in his life. Yes, he had arthritis in his right hip, but not serious enough to die from it,” she said.
The Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) urges veterinarians to distribute Client Information Sheets (CIS) to pet owners that describe the risks of NSAIDs. CIS are similar to package inserts humans get when pharmacies fill their prescriptions, including information on a drug’s risks.
“The Food and Drug Administration works with the drug sponsors to develop Client Information Sheets and other information that can help ensure that approved veterinary medicines are used properly,” said Linda Grassie, communications director at the FDA. “FDA believes that these CIS can be helpful for pet owners and encourages veterinarians to provide available CIS to their clients.”
Yet few pet owners get that information.
"I never got a Client Information Sheet," said Draeger. "I blindly trusted my vet. I shouldn't have."
“Once a person knows what a CIS is, they have the capability to make an informed decision on whether they want to use that drug,” said Laurryn Simpson, whose website www.DogsAdverseReactions.com, and Caninedrugdangers message board, provide the latest information on NSAIDs and other medical news. “If they do, they know what to watch for in case of an adverse reaction.”
Besides Rimadyl, other commonly prescribed NSAIDs include Deramaxx (Deracoxib), Etogesic (Etodolac), Zubrin (Tepoxalin), Previcox (Firocoxib), and Metacam (Meloxicam).
The FDA was flooded with reports of canine injury and death from Rimadyl soon after it was approved in 1996. Of all the Adverse Drug Event (ADE) reports received by the CVM in 1998, 39 percent, or 3,626, involved Rimadyl, according to the FDA in December, 1999. It is estimated that less that one percent of actual adverse drug reactions are ever reported to the FDA.
“The number of ADE reports received by CVM for Rimadyl is considerably more than that received for other animal drugs,” said the report.
Approximately 13 percent of the 1998 Rimadyl ADE reports for dogs involved death, either on their own or by means of euthanasia, according to the CVM.
Pfizer and other NSAID manufacturers have issued “Dear Doctor” letters to vets to inform them of the drugs’ risks and asking that the information be passed along to pet owners. Still, most vets do not inform pet owners of the drugs’ potentially lethal side effects.
Demitry Herman, an animal welfare advocate in Pennsylvania, wants a law passed that would change all that.
While acknowledging NSAIDs have saved dogs that might otherwise have had to be euthanized from crippling arthritis, Herman nonetheless has been working tirelessly to get the legislature to support a bill that requires vets to conduct pre-screened blood tests and hand out CIS to pet owners before prescribing the drugs.
Herman's 11-year-old schnauzer, Jetta, a licensed therapy dog, died soon after getting an NSAID, Deramaxx, for a sore leg.
"My goal is to get the word out to people that these NSAIDs work, but they're not for every dog," Herman told The Press. "These vets aren't doing the proper testing as the manufacturers suggest. The FDA should require it. The vets are not telling us about side effects and death rates. These dogs are our kids."
Had he known about the drug's risks, he would have recognized Jetta's symptoms, and the dog might have been saved, he said.
"That pill hit our dog right away. Jetta wasn't eating, had glassy eyes, staring at the wall. I would have stopped the drug right away and got her to the vet because the drug started eating through her stomach," said Herman. He rushed the dog to the vet, where it had a heart attack and died, 48 hours after getting the drug.
"She was a strong dog," he said. "This shouldn't have happened."
Herman has asked the Pennsylvania State Examining Board to require vets to give informed consent to pet owners on the drugs’ risks, and to offer pre-screened blood tests to determine if NSAIDs would be suitable for their pets.
Herman is also seeking appointment to one of two public seats on the board, which oversees the veterinary profession.
"If the board is not going to pass a regulation that says vets need to explain the drug, and give CIS to clients when they hand out the drug, and do blood testing, then I'm going to have a law passed," said Herman.
"It costs just $16 to test the liver and kidneys for suitability," he said of the pre-screened blood tests. "It's estimated that 35 to 50 percent of dogs, if they were tested, would not be suitable for these drugs."
The Ohio Veterinary Medical Association (OVMA), which represents veterinarian interests in Ohio, would oppose a similar bill if it were introduced in Ohio.
“Veterinarians should assist their clients in understanding the medications prescribed for their animals, which may or may not include extensive written materials,” Jack Advent, executive director of the OVMA, told The Press. “Mandatory forms and the dispensing of large amounts of information can at times desensitize clients to the key facts they should be aware of. The information provided should preferably be a matter of a variety of factors, including safety, good customer communication, and prior client/patient experience with the medication, among others. The administering of all tests, including pre-anesthetic blood tests, should be left to the discretion of the veterinarian based upon medical factors and professional judgment - and the client, after those factors have been explained to them.”
"If that's the case,” said Herman, “then the vet should be responsible if something happens. But if people know ahead of time, then they can't go back to the vet and say they screwed up."
Features Editor Tammy Walro contributed to this report