Recent findings in reported opioid prescriptions for pets reveal seriously disturbing news amid the opioid crisis. Veterinary opioids, used as a pain reliever and cough suppressant in pets, appear to be finding their way into human hands. In fact, some pet owners are so desperate to get these drugs that they’re intentionally harming their animals.
A study published in the JAMA Network in Jan. 2019 found that opioid prescriptions at Ryan Veterinary Hospital, the teaching hospital of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine, increased 41 percent over an eleven-year period while the number of pet hospital visits increased only 13 percent during the same period.
Prescription data from general veterinary practices and hospitals across Pennsylvania suggested that the increase in veterinary opioid prescribing may be a nationwide trend requiring further investigation to safeguard public health.
“This situation may create a pathway that allows humans to covertly access opioids for diversion or misuse from their pets or other animals. In addition, leftover opioids from veterinary prescriptions can also result in diversion, misuse, abuse, or inadvertent toddler exposure,” the authors wrote.
In August, Scott Gottlieb, U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner who recently resigned, announced the publication of a new resource guide, “The Opioid Epidemic: What Veterinarians Need to Know,” urging veterinarians to follow federal and state prescribing regulations. The guide also supports the use of non-opioid alternatives whenever possible and describes how to recognize opioid abuse in clients and staff.
An August 2017 University of Colorado study found that 44 percent of 189 veterinarians surveyed were aware of opioid misuse or abuse by a client or staff member.
The tragic findings don't end there.
“Another 13 percent were aware that an animal owner had intentionally made an animal ill, injured an animal, or made an animal seem ill or injured to obtain opioid medications,” the authors of the study wrote.
The American Medical Veterinary Association reported on a 2014 case in which one Kentucky woman was arrested for cutting her dog with razor blades on multiple occasions to obtain veterinary opioids. The case received international attention.
Unfortunately, cases like this one aren't unique and continue to raise alarm surrounding the worsening opioid epidemic.
"The role veterinarians play in helping reduce opioid abuse hasn't been thoroughly examined," Lili Tenney, lead investigator of the Colorado study and deputy director of the Center for Health, Work and Environment at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, told the Journal of the American Veterinary Association.
"Our results indicate that we should be paying more attention to how opioid abusers are seeking their drugs, including through veterinary clinics."