Americans Are Taking Fish Antibiotics Because They Can't Afford to See a Doctor

The antibiotics available for ornamental fish have not been approved by the FDA. (Photo: ikhyon Kwon/Shutterstock)

While politicians continue to debate how to improve the health care system, Americans are finding unusual workarounds. Case in point: Some people are taking medication designed for their pets in order to avoid pricey trips to the doctor.

Like fish antibiotics.

Researchers from the University of South Carolina recently examined online reviews from two dozen websites selling nine different types of fish antibiotics. Of the 2,288 reviews they read, 55 of them (2.4%) appeared to be from customers who were taking the antibiotics to treat themselves. The researchers even found one retailer who responded to a question online and said the fish pills were fine to use for humans.

The preliminary research was presented in early December at the midyear clinical meeting of the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP). It has not yet been peer-reviewed.

“While human consumption of fish antibiotics is likely low, any consumption by humans of antibiotics intended for animals is alarming,” Brandon Bookstaver, Pharm.D., director of residency and fellowship training at the University of South Carolina College of Pharmacy, said in a statement. “Self-medication and the availability of antibiotics without healthcare oversight might contribute to increasing antimicrobial resistance and delayed appropriate treatment. 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.”

Commenters weigh in

In the tweet above, Rachel Sharp posted a screenshot of some reviews for the fish antibiotic MoxiFish in which it was pretty clear that the commenters were not using this product to treat their fish:

According to online forums like this one or this one, you can also find these medications at any pet store or big box chain. It's interesting to note that many of these products contain the exact same medication — often in the same doses — that are given to humans, such as amoxicillin, ciprofloxacin and penicillin.

For example, for $30 you can get a 30-count bottle of MoxiFish which contains 500-milligram tablets of antibiotics. That's a heck of a lot cheaper than a doctor visit and pharmacy bill.

And it's not just fish that are getting hit up for their drugs. In this Reddit thread, a user talks about using horse liniment for aches and pains. And Twitter is filled with posts from folks who have used their pet's medication because it costs too much to see a doctor.

The FDA weighs in

man feeding fish in tank
Medicines designed for fish are not necessarily safe for people. (Photo: hedgehog94/Shutterstock)

So what's the big deal about taking fish antibiotics? For starters, the products currently available do not have the stamp of approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the agency tasked with regulating the safety, efficacy and purity of all drugs whether they are for humans or for animals. At present, the FDA has approved medications for companion animals (dogs, cats, horses) and food animals (chickens, cows, goats) but not for ornamental fish.

"The antibiotics available in pet stores or online for ornamental fish have not been approved, conditionally approved, or indexed by the FDA, so it is illegal to market them," the FDA said in a statement to Smithsonian.

The Smithsonian piece explains that the FDA probably hasn't had fish antibiotics on their radar because they are such a small piece of the antibiotic market. But that may soon change.

"We are currently looking into these products," said the FDA in a statement.

Another reason you might want to pass on the pet pills is that you can't just take any antibiotic for any illness. Amoxicillin is used to treat different things than say, ciprofloxacin. And each drug also comes with its own side effects and potential reactions with other medications. Choose wrong and you could be looking at health issues that go beyond an abscess tooth or urinary tract infection.

Of course, the bigger issue here is not that Americans are taking medications designed for their pets. Nor is it whether or not it is a good idea for them to do so (it's not.) The real issue is why a country that sees itself as the leader of the free world has citizens who feel they have no other choice than to take animal antibiotics when they are sick. Sounds fishy, doesn't it?