Using Pet Remedies on People


Nilo Amier massages Bag Balm into her chapped hands. Formulated 100 years ago to soften the udders of milking cows, the salve works just as well on people, said Amier, who tends a half-acre mini-ranch in Tarzana. “And it sure beats Vaseline.”

Canyon Country feed dealers Odie Fox and his son Jerry swear by Flex Free, a pricey supplement for easing stress and strains in horses. One dissolves a pinch of the bitter powder in his orange juice. The other sprinkles it on breakfast cereal.

“It really works,” said Jerry Fox, claiming it counters aches from slinging 120-pound hay bales. “The rodeo folks and stuntmen all use it. And they’ve been broke up pretty bad.”


After 47 years as a stunt actor, Roy Clark of Shadow Hills has his own preference: Bigeloil, a horse liniment that sells for about $14 a quart at feed stores and tack shops. He slathers the solution on sore muscles and abrasions.

“The stronger the liniment, the better,” said Clark. “It may just be in my mind, but [horse products] are stronger and more effective.”

On farms and ranches, people have been dosing themselves with animal remedies for as long as anyone can remember. But now the practice is spreading to cities and suburbs. Cost is one reason, because vitamins, antibiotics, ointments and other items sold for animals are generally cheaper than drugstore varieties.

Another factor--and one that worries public health experts--is the belief that drugs and medications designed for animal use are more potent than those people can buy for themselves, with or without a prescription.

No one can say how much is spent on pet products for human use; some manufacturers estimate from 20% to 50% or more of some products, such as moisturizers and shampoos. But annual sales of all pet products--estimated at $23 billion nationwide--have jumped 35% in just the last five years. A leap of another 24%--to $28.5 billion--is predicted by 2001, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Assn.

Authorities concede that uncounted thousands, perhaps millions, of people are buying veterinary products for themselves, but say they are powerless to stop the crossover use because the sale of most vet products to anyone is perfectly legal.

“Our focus is on making sure that the products are labeled properly,” said Gloria Dunnavan, compliance director for veterinary medicine for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “That does not preclude an individual who purchases a product from choosing to ignore those directions.”

Public health experts say they are concerned about the use of products that have been taken off the human market, such as some liniments, fungicides and DMSO (dimethyl sulfoxide), once popularly used as a penetrating agent for administering medications.

In the case of DMSO, a solvent, federal tests found it carries contaminants deep into the body. Other products, like menthylsulfonylmethane, or MSM, which is sold to ease arthritis in animals, have not been tested to be effective in people--and may pose risks, authorities warn.

Some horse liniments, for instance, can blister human skin, users warn. Ketamine, a veterinary anesthetic only recently classified as a federally controlled substance, has caused serious illness, even death, among people illegally using it as a hallucinogen.

“The big problem is that many of these preparations have never had human testing and they cannot [be assumed] to be safe for humans,” said Dr. Shirley Fannin, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services. “People who use products illicitly are just playing Russian roulette.”

Many Looking for Alternative Treatments

So far, however, Fannin said there are no records on the number of people who have fallen ill after using animal treatments. She said that may be because such use is not being reported.

Conversely, the lack of records may also hint that some products do work well on people, or at least don’t do harm, state and federal authorities said.

“Baby boomers are looking for alternative therapies,” said Dr. Greg Thompson of USC’s pharmaceutical information center. “But they have never been tested for safety, which is a frightening thing.

“I venture we will see some problems eventually.

Obtaining animal products isn’t difficult. In Southern California, feed stores are commonplace because of the many equestrian areas, from the hills of Santa Barbara to the suburbs of San Diego, and from the wooded lanes of La Canada Flintridge to the boarding stables of San Juan Capistrano.

Animal remedies are also available by mail order and the Internet.

“Delicious, tastes like malt,” boasts one catalog, Solid Gold Health Products for Pets, which offers an “anti-aging enzyme” for dogs. The product also “helps with brown liver spots,” the catalog promises. Such spots are more commonly a human condition not often associated with pets.

Sissy Harrington-McGill of El Cajon, founder of Solid Gold, said she uses one of her own products--yucca--twice daily to treat her sore left shoulder. But she quickly adds that the company does not make any therapeutic drug claims, nor does it advocate use of its products by people.

The easy availability of animal medicines stems from decades-old laws that say animals are property. Owners can doctor their pets and livestock, so long as their treatment doesn’t cross the line to cruelty.

“That exemption has been there a long time,” said Susan Geranen, executive officer of the California Veterinary Medical Board. “Products can be found at pet stores, feed stores and catalogs from all over the world. There is a problem with no control over a lot of things.”

To obtain needles and syringes, for example, a buyer need only sign a log book at the feed store counter declaring the purchase is for use on animals.

“Technically, it is against the law” to purchase needles and syringes for human use without authorization, said Larry Allen, animal health chief with the California Department of Food and Agriculture. “But you and I know that we can walk into a feed store and get them.”

The same is true for antibiotics and medications, many of which roll out of the same manufacturing houses but with different labels for human or animal use. Included in the crossover uses of veterinary products are the “nutriceuticals”--or nutritional pharmaceuticals--a newly coined term that has yet to find its way into Webster’s.

Containing such exotic-sounding ingredients as shark cartilage and green-lipped sea mussel, food supplements for people--largely protected by a 1994 act of Congress--are often duplicated in packages for pets.

Supplements such as yucca and MSM are among the latest rage in health foods that advocates claim do everything from relieve arthritis, allergies and asthma to help prevent the common cold.

Many scientists say such claims are unfounded. Even so, Congress has largely protected the right of manufacturers to market products as food supplements that may offer health benefits--as long as they do not claim therapeutic drug powers.

“MSM is a hell of a lot cheaper in a feed store,” said one fan, a marketing executive from Vista.

Animal products are even marketed and sold for human use in mainstream stores such as Wal-Mart. Buyers with no more equestrian experience than a merry-go-round ride are grabbing up horse shampoos, mane and tail detanglers and hoof moisturizers, which are thought to promote strong fingernails.

The trend was launched about 1990 by Straight Arrow Products of Bethlehem, Pa. The company, which has marketed Mane ‘n Tail shampoos, conditioners and other horse products for 30 years, learned that its products were also being used by people and began packaging them for drugstore sales. Others followed suit.

The FDA in 1995 issued a warning about product labeling, blocking manufacturers who made unsubstantiated claims, such as saying that products help hair or fingernails grow.

“Any time somebody claims their hair is growing, it raises the interest of the FDA,” said Devon Katzev, president and CEO of Straight Arrow. “We don’t make that claim.” However, he added that the company’s “human business is bigger than our animal business.”

“Sales took off” when the company recently introduced a 6-ounce version of its 32-ounce jar of Hoofmaker moisturizer, said Ed Kline, Straight Arrow’s vice president of sales and marketing.

“My wife wouldn’t go anywhere without a bottle of Hoofmaker,” Kline said. “You can’t carry around a 32-ounce bottle.”

Horse Liniment for Humans

Absorbine Veterinary Liniment, patented in 1892, is considered the original crossover product. A staple in every barn, the ointment was so popular among farm families that the W.F. Young Co. of Springfield, Mass., introduced a human version, Absorbine Jr., in 1904.

The two formulas “have some slight differences,” basically in the blend of herbal ingredients, said Jaime Devine, vice president of marketing and the fourth generation of the founding family. But the two products are virtually interchangeable between man and beast, she says.

The company estimates 40% to 50% of its veterinary liniment is applied to humans. “The whole philosophy is if it’s horse strength, it must be stronger,” Devine said.

She also concedes that the human antiseptic ointment costs more than the animal product, largely because of the testing and labeling requirements of the FDA.

Until a decade or so ago, veterinarians commonly dispensed advice on the application of barn remedies for human ailments. Liability laws, insurance restrictions and professional rules have largely eliminated that, said Dr. Robert Bishop, president of the Washington Veterinary Medical Assn., who doubles as the Island County coroner.

“Veterinarians treating people has become a lot more restrictive,” he said. “I don’t think much of that goes on anymore.”

But veterinarians say they are often approached by people surreptitiously seeking drugs for themselves, such as amoxicillin, an antibiotic, prednisone, a steroid for treating arthritis and asthma, or Valium, a tranquilizer and muscle relaxant.

“If an 80-year-old crippled woman comes in and says she wants DMSO for her horse, well, you know she doesn’t have a horse,” Bishop said. “The mainstream veterinarian is going to be fairly conscious of that.”

Instead, he blames the easy accessibility to animal remedies on feed stores, large farms or breeders and catalogs. “Those are the three biggest loopholes left to plug,” Bishop said.

State officials say the pharmaceutical industry has opposed ceding control to veterinarians, who would profit greatly if they could control products through sales in their offices.

The Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Veterinary Medicine, which oversees the licensing and labeling of pet products, does not monitor the crossover use of animal health products by humans.

“That would not come to our attention,” said Dr. Linda Tollefson, director of the center’s Office of Surveillance and Compliance. With no oversight, she said, “The problem here is that we’re not sure it is a danger.”

Animal grooming and topical products are the most commonly used by humans, producers said. Horse liniments and salves, such as Ichthammol--which can be rubbed onto a finger, say, to draw out a splinter--have been around for generations.

The Bag Balm so popularly sought in Los Angeles, a town where few milking cows remain, is still sold in the familiar green-and-black tin created 100 years ago by the Dairy Assn. of Lyndonville, Vt. But it is more likely to be sold in the tiny tin that fits in the bath cabinet of a condo rather than the bulk version for the milking shed.

Many producers privately claim their products can perform miracles, ranging from restoring hair lost by chemotherapy patients to curing skin disease such as acne or even diaper rash.

They have to be careful, though, not to make such claims on product labels. That would require years of costly studies and approval by the FDA and other agencies.

“A horse’s hoof and your fingernails are exactly the same thing,” said Don Van, chairman of Vista-based Eqyss International, which produces horse grooming products. “But if I said I have a fingernail grower, the FDA would be all over me. I would have to do a million studies, so I couldn’t do it.”

Eqyss was forced to alter the label on one product that claimed, among other uses, to repel bugs and flies. That claim required a license and a series of tests under regulations of the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

“The EPA said I could pay $50,000, $60,000, $70,000 for studies or take it off the label, so I took it off the label,” Van said.

“But it still repels flies.”

Because of labeling restrictions, endorsements are generally passed by word of mouth or over the Internet. But it also is not difficult to read between the lines in catalog descriptions.

Eqyss is particularly direct in promotional fliers: “Grooming products fit for man or beast. . . . Try our products on yourself. You’ll be amazed with the results!”


Times research librarian Ron Weaver contributed to this story.