In October of 2014, a 23-year-old woman brought her golden retriever to an animal hospital in Kentucky, with multiple neat slashes across its body that required stitches. She asked her veterinarian for Tramadol — a powerful, addictive pain medication and synthetic opioid. In December of that year, she brought her dog back to the clinic with the same injuries.
At the time, the treating veterinarian told local media she was definitely in “uncharted territory,” but cases of animal owners abusing their pets to gain access to opioids may be more frequent than previously thought, according to a recent survey conducted by the Center for Health, Work & Environment at the Colorado School of Public Health.
Thirteen percent of 189 veterinarians surveyed in the Colorado area for the study had seen clients who they believed had injured or sickened their pets (or made them appear to be sick or injured) to obtain opioids. Forty-four percent reported opioid abuse or misuse by either their clients or staff members, and 12 percent said they knew of veterinarians themselves were abusing or diverting the drugs.
“One can only imagine the kinds of things that people will do” to obtain opioids, Lee Newman, one of the lead researchers, told The Outline. Newman and his colleagues have also run research groups where they learned of owners making late-night visits to the clinic for refills, clients who “doctor shop,” and pets with suspiciously-broken limbs.
More than 115 people in the United States die after overdosing on opioids each day, according to the latest data from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. And that number may be conservative; new data shows we have undercounted opioid deaths by the thousands in some states. The world is still getting a handle on the health crisis, and “the role veterinarians play in helping reduce opioid abuse hasn't been thoroughly examined,” Ms. Tenney said.
Most veterinarians surveyed said they had little to no prior education about opioid misuse in their clinics or how to tackle it. Together with the Colorado Consortium for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention, the researchers developed an online training course which they hope will help.