This Is Why Taking Fish Medicine Is Truly a Bad Idea

No ornamental fish antibiotics are regulated by the FDA. (RubberBall / Alamy )

No ornamental fish antibiotics are regulated by the FDA. (RubberBall / Alamy )

Earlier this month, a Tweet from author Rachel Sharp alerted the Internet to a disturbing trend: Some people were resorting to taking fish antibiotics to cure their ailments. Yes, fish antibiotics. Sharp’s Tweet, which quickly went viral, included a screenshot of several thinly veiled Amazon reviews left by humans who were clearly using the aquatic pet medicine Moxifish on themselves.

Naturally, the Internet was appalled. But few stopped to ask: what’s actually so wrong with taking fish antibiotics?

It’s not quite as crazy as it sounds. Fish are given many of the same antibiotics as humans—amoxicillin, ciprofloxacin, penicillin and more—sometimes even in the same doses. These pills, which are intended to be dissolved in fish tanks and be absorbed through fishes' skin, can also look extremely similar to the human versions. And while a trip to the doctor can rack up hundreds of dollars for someone who doesn't have insurance, a bottle of 30 500mg capsules of Moxifish costs just $29.95 from the supplier, Fishceuticals.

But there are a few key reasons why taking your fish’s drugs is a very bad, no good idea. Let’s start at the top.

First, fish antibiotics are completely unregulated. Technically, they should fall under the purview of the Food and Drug Administration, which oversees both human and animal drugs. Those animals including companion animals (dogs, cats, horses) and food animals (cattle, pigs, chickens). Yet no ornamental fish antibiotics are approved by the FDA.

"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.com. The statement continued:

If consumers are seeing these products in stores, they should be aware that these products have no assurance of purity, safety or effectiveness. The FDA does not have any information about the unapproved antibiotics sold in pet stores because they have not been evaluated for quality, safety, effectiveness, or purity. We strongly advise people to not substitute them for approved products that are intended for use in humans as prescribed by their health care provider.

Why aren’t they regulated? According to some veterinarians, they’re simply too small of a problem for the agency to bother with. Pet fish antibiotics make up a tiny fraction of the total amount of antibiotics used, says Samuel Young, a veterinarian and founder of the Uncommon Creatures Mobile Veterinary Services, which treats animals from fish to gila monsters to llamas. Thus, pet fish meds don’t pose nearly the same risks as antibiotics used for food animals, which the FDA is currently working to regulate more tightly.

The FDA says that it does not have any data on how prevalent the fish antibiotics problem is. "We are currently looking into these products," representatives wrote in a statement. "FDA considers taking action based on its resources, the risk the product poses, and its public health priorities." 

Lacking the stamp of FDA approval, fish meds instead often sport claims that they are pharmaceutical or “USP grade,” a supposed quality benchmark set by an independent non-profit called the United States Pharmacopeia. The USP, however, is not a regulatory agency. Though it tests a small number of supplements through its "USP verified" program, it does not otherwise measure the purity or content of drugs for their purported contents.

"I think it's probably mostly B.S." Young says of these grades. "[Companies] are not able to guarantee—or even required to guarantee—what's actually in it, the purity of it, or the actual amount of it. It can be anything."

Read the full story at Smithsonian.com

EnvironmentMaya Wei-Haas