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SPCA doles out deadly medicine

by Archives March 4, 2008

Oreo was one year old when he was abandoned at the SPCA. In the cramped environment of the shelter, disease spreads quickly. The black and white border collie soon developed a case of “kennel cough,” a highly contagious, potentially fatal, flu-like condition. Veterinarians prescribed him chloramphenicol, despite its rare but deadly side effects.
While the drug was once widely prescribed, according to Health Canada’s website, it can now only be used on humans “as a last resort drug in the treatment of typhoid fever where no other treatment is available.” Also, while the drug has also been given to livestock, it is still legal for use in dogs.
The antibiotic, which was developed in 1949, is still used at the Canadian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA). Despite the name the society is only active in Montreal. Founded in 1869, it is the oldest and largest animal shelter in the city. It is not affiliated with any of the other SPCAs across the country.
SPCA director Pierre Barnoti said he doesn’t know about the risks associated with chloramphenicol. “No I’m not aware of any concern about the safety of the product,” he said, “[It’s] news to me.”
Doctor Eric Troncy, a professor of veterinary medicine at Universite de Montreal, said the drug is not commonly used in veterinary medicine today, but “was a common antibiotic 15 to 20 years ago.” Troncy said that dogs who had been administered the drug sometimes had “trouble with their blood formula.”
Sarah Guénette, a veterinarian at the Laurier Animal Hospital, explained the drug’s potential side effects to the bone marrow’s production of red blood cells. “Especially in humans, the secondary effects can be quite serious,” she said.
‘Aplastic anemia’ is the clinical term for the bone marrow condition that can affect both humans and dogs, a deadly, untreatable condition that can occur months after treatment has stopped.
Guenette thinks the SPCA may be using the drug because of its low cost. “Because it’s cheap, because it’s really accessible for them.” But she was quick to defend the use of the drug. “The SPCA [is] treating a huge quantity of animals, animals that have all kinds of disease. So they are obliged to select the things that are affordable for what they do.”
When asked if the SPCA uses the drug because its cheap, Barnoti is quick to deny it. “Absolutely not. The reason is that it is the mildest antibiotic and it works in 80 to 90 per cent of the cases . . . it is less potent than other drugs that are more expensive.”
Barnoti maintains that the society is facing severe financial difficulties and while he has made cuts, including the replacement of several employees with volunteers, he said medical care is something he would not cut back. “If there is one place where at the SPCA we do not save money it is the clinic.”
“Let’s call a spade a spade, the clinic downstairs is not state-of-the-art, we could use a lot of improvement,” said Barnoti. “But the fact that we are saving on medication or that we are using a product because it’s cheaper than the other one with negative [effects], would be a total lie.”
In the kennel, blue paint has faded in spots, revealing an older coat of brown. The administration offices are simple. White walls, desks covered in files, and computers that look like they’re from the last century. But Barnoti’s office is in sharp contrast to the rest of the SPCA. A fresh coat of red paint covers the walls. The chairs are all leather; two paintings of horses, in 18th century style, hang on the walls. A large flat-screen computer monitor displays the logo for the new Windows Vista.
He said that his vets have recommended chloramphenicol because it is weaker than other drugs on the market. “We all know that viruses build a resistance…What the vets of the SPCA want to see is the virus building a resistance to the weakest drug, so we can work with the strongest drug in cases where it doesn’t work.”
While Guenette said it’s not necessarily bad to use the drug, she prefers to use something else. “When it’s possible, when people have money there are some antibiotics that have less potential toxicity and that are more specific for certain types of infection, that are more recommendable to use.”
Worried that he might die if left in the shelter an SPCA volunteer took him home, temporarily, in the hope that he would recover. But when his condition worsened she took him to see Guenette, who changed his prescription.
In addition to the potential effects from taking the drug, Guenette said people must be careful if their dog is taking the medicine, “the dust from the pill . . . it can be toxic.”
“We always have some drugs on the market where we have some cases of toxicity,” said Troncy. But he said, “the advantage of using the drug is better than the risk, so we continue to use it.”
Oreo made a full recovery and was adopted from the SPCA.

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