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.