Impacts of Opioid Abuse On the Veterinary Profession

Photo Credit: Flicker CC, jlhopgood, MyaIf you pay attention to the news, you’re aware of the growing problem of opioid addiction within the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 33,000 opioid-related deaths in 2015 with West Virginia having the highest rate followed by New Hampshire, Kentucky, Ohio, and Rhode Island.

How does opioid abuse impact the world of veterinary medicine? Certainly there are veterinarians who struggle with opioid addiction, a topic for another article. This post focuses on the fact that, as opioid prescribers, veterinarians and veterinary hospitals are viewed as potential supply sources for addicts. Theft is a problem as is the issue of pet owners taking narcotics prescribed for their pets. There are too many cases of lies and scams, and some addicts have even gone so far as to maim their own pets in order to obtain a pain medication prescription.

Kentuckian Heather Pereira used a razor blade on two separate occasions to cut her dog with the goal of leaving the vet hospital with drugs. Dr. Chad Bailey, the veterinarian who stitched up Pereira’s retriever became suspicious when she returned to the clinic three days after the first visit for more pills. She claimed that her child flushed them down the toilet. It was discovered that Pereira has no children, and she was convicted of trying to obtain controlled substances by fraud.

Other examples

When two Plainfield, Illinois veterinarians got together, the conversation happened to include challenges with clients. One of the vets talked about a client who was suspiciously trying to refill a tramadol prescription for her dog (tramadol is a commonly abused pain medication). On one occasion, the client claimed that the airlines lost her dog’s drugs and she then requested an early script renewal for an extended trip she would be making to assist her mother with cancer treatment. It dawned on the second veterinarian that this individual had been running the same exact scam on her.

In Ashland, Ohio Dr. Kristine LaFever became suspicious when a young couple came in requesting tramadol by name for their dog. They refused the drugs Dr. LaFever recommended and left the hospital empty-handed. A week or so later Dr. Donald Kaeser arrived for work at the same clinic and found the control drug safe had been pried open and all of the tramadol and phenobarbital (an anti-seizure medication) was missing. Through blood left at the scene, the DNA trail led police to the tramadol-demanding couple, one of whom was sentenced to two years in prison. The other was placed under house arrest for 120 days. The clinic has not replaced the stolen tramadol. “We’ve gone to not carrying it,” Kaeser said. “If we think a pet needs it, we’ll just call in a prescription.”

Pet overdoses

An additional opioid-related problem that appears to be on the rise is overdose cases amongst pets. More and more, animals are being treated for accidental and, in some cases, intentional overdoses. Madeline Bernstein, president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Los Angeles has observed, “We do see a lot of cases where the dogs are overdosing because either they’re getting into the stuff or edibles, or idiots think it’s funny to get their dog high or to share their heroin with their dog.” Bernstein deems this to be animal abuse and works hard to get offenders prosecuted.

Guidelines for Veterinary Prescription Drugs

The American Veterinary Medical Association has been paying close attention to the rapidly growing problems associated with human drug addiction and veterinary prescriptions. The organization’s Guidelines for Veterinary Prescription Drugs states, “Veterinary prescription drugs should be dispensed only in quantities required for the treatment of the animal(s) for which the drugs are dispensed. Avoid unlimited refills of prescriptions or any other activity that might result in misuse of drugs.”

Veterinarians are being advised to carefully track control drug prescriptions and actively perform audits (pill counts) on the medications they keep on site. By law, all controlled drugs should be under lock and key 24/7.

Additionally, veterinarians are being asked to formally report clients they suspect of abusing drugs prescribed for their pets. Sgt. Paul Rodriguez with the Los Angeles Police Department provides some guidelines. “We have to have a little more than just a hunch. A veterinarian reporting someone coming in for the same prescription three times in one month is a tip police can use to investigate further and actually send a detective to go and do some follow up questioning.“

Most veterinarians I know pay really close attention to recommended prescription drug guidelines. They don’t want to jeopardize their careers, and a problem relating to controlled drugs (missing pills, pill audit discrepancies, prescribing more than seems reasonable) can do just that.

Have you ever shared your pet’s medications, or vice versa?

Best wishes,

Nancy Kay, DVM

Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Author of Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
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Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health.   There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health are available at http://www.speakingforspot.com, Amazon.com, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.

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6 Comments on “Impacts of Opioid Abuse On the Veterinary Profession

  1. I once gave some of my own tramadol to my dog that had been bitten by a copperhead and couldn’t see the vet for several hours. (I did know the appropriate dose.)

  2. Geez Louise, I had no idea, the incidents you shared made my stomach turn. Ugh. I’m glad there are excellent guidelines for vets to follow, but I worry that many will start to hold back on pain meds for recovering animal patients. In our Tripawds community we recently had a case where a member’s vet flat out told her s/he refused to prescribe Tramadol because the human addiction rate was so high in that neighborhood.

  3. I guess I show my age when I say: “what is the world coming to????” It is so difficult to see the innocent being hurt (pets, children). Horrifying.

  4. I work in an office people with younger persons in their 30’s and 40’s. I walked into the office to the following conversation. Seems that recently in Santa Rosa, California there have been several deaths due to drug overdoses among the homeless. The people in my office were saying “hey here is the answer to the homeless just give them all the drugs they want and let them kill themselves.” They went on to make up slogans for each day like……”Meth Monday – More is Marvelous”.
    When I asked if they would feel the same if it was one of their relatives ? Their answer was a total agreement on the following…… Your parents, church, school, society Ext. tell you to stay away from drugs. So if you are stupid enough to get involved with drugs just get out of the geen pool . I wonder if the rest of society feels the same?

  5. What a dreadful world we are living in today. What has happened to us as humans that we cannot function without opioids and will even willingly harm a pet to get them. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised – about 10 years ago, the son of a close friend (son was 15) stole his dying mother’s pain meds to sell and buy his own drug of choice.

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