Veterinarians, Pet Medications, and the Opioid Crisis

Pet Opioids

Ninety-five percent of pet owners say they consider pets a part of the family, but there’s a darker side to some of those families. Sadly, as in so many human families, drug addiction is breaking the bonds of affection and trust. Veterinarians have reported cases where opioid addiction is leading pet owners to steal their pets’ medications or even injure their pets in an effort to get pain meds prescribed.

As a result, many veterinarians unexpectedly find themselves involved in a human epidemic – the opioid crisis. According to the CDC, 46 people die every day from prescription opioid overdoses, and pet medications play a role.

Abusers Look to Pet Medications as an “Easier” Source for Drugs

In 2017, Blue Cross Blue Shield analyzed the claims of over 30 million people and found that diagnoses of opioid-use disorder had increased by almost 500% in just 7 years. The study also found that prescription strength and duration affected the chance of opioid-use disorder. As evidence mounted that over-prescribing opioids was contributing to increasing rates of addiction and death, many states imposed restrictions on physicians and pharmacists.

When that happened, it became more difficult to get and fill opioid prescriptions for humans. That made pet medications an attractive alternative for some abusers. In 2018, an editorial in the American Journal of Public Health cited a survey of Colorado veterinarians and urged the profession to accept that they “have a dog in the fight” against opioid abuse.

“Key findings include the following: 13% of surveyed veterinarians 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; 44% were aware of opioid abuse or misuse by either a client or a veterinary practice staff member; and 12% were aware of veterinary staff opioid abuse and diversion.”

One of the more shocking aspects of pet medication abuse is how far people will go to obtain the medications.

  • A woman in Kentucky cut her golden retriever with a razor and took him to the same vet three times for pain meds. The doctor became suspicious because the cuts “looked like clean cuts instead of the jaggedness that you might see in most animal injuries,” and the woman asked for a medication by name.
  • An Ohio man taught his dog to cough on cue in an effort to obtain hydrocodone prescriptions.
  • A Connecticut man was charged with animal cruelty, illegally obtaining drugs, and “doctor shopping” after he took two injured dogs to multiple vets to obtain pain pills for himself.

The problem has become so prevalent that government agencies and professional organizations are working to educate veterinarians about the dangers to their patients and the community.

FDA Warnings and State Regulations

In 2018, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned veterinarians about possible misuse of pet medications and offered information resource links and advice to doctors who “stock and administer opioids.”

  • Follow all state regulations.
  • Use alternatives when possible.
  • Educate pet owners on proper storage and disposal.
  • Know what to do in case of overdose.
  • Have a safety plan and learn the signs of opioid abuse.

In response to the epidemic, many states have implemented reporting and prescription control regulations for opioids prescribed to humans. Increasingly, the FDA noted, states are regulating veterinarians as well.

“According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, fifteen states and the District of Columbia currently have regulations requiring veterinarians to report when they dispense opioids and other controlled substances to patients: Alaska, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Vermont, Washington state, and West Virginia. Thirty-four states, however, exempt veterinarians from Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs.

Not only are states changing reporting requirements, some are also setting limits on the number of pills that can be prescribed at one time and some are even limiting the duration of a patient’s treatment with opioids. States such as Colorado and Maine require veterinarians to look at a pet owner’s past medication history before dispensing opioids or writing an opioid prescription.”

The requirement to check a pet owner’s medication history is a source of controversy among veterinarians. There’s a cost concern, but many doctors also cite the ethical issues involved with checking the medical history of a non-patient. Dr. Amanda Bison, legislative chair of the Maine Veterinary Medical Association explained: “We are not allowed to treat humans and therefore should not have anything to do with their medical information.”

How Veterinary Practices Can Respond to Opioid Abuse

While state veterinary associations and state regulators work to develop effective laws and regulations, individual veterinary practices should be proactive.

  • Control access inside the clinic. Drugs must be inaccessible to non-authorized personnel. Employees may steal them to sell or use themselves. Vet clinics have also been targeted by burglars looking for drugs.
  • Be alert to signs of staff drug abuse. Warning signs include mood swings, mental confusion, frequent mistakes, and absenteeism.
  • Learn to recognize client warning signs. These include asking for a particular drug by name, requesting early refills, and avoiding bringing the animal in for a physical exam.
  • Review AVMA resources. The AVMA offers charts, white papers, and printable educational materials to help doctors understand reporting requirements, educate their staff, and prevent drug diversion.

It’s also important to educate staff and patients about safe medication disposal options. Many people don’t understand the dangers of improper disposal of medical and pharmaceutical wastes. Drugs stored at home or thrown out in household garbage may be retrieved and misused. Medications flushed down the drain or dumped in landfills can also cause both physical and environmental harm.

Sharps Compliance offers DEA-compliant, safe drug disposal solutions for clinics and end-users. These offer immediate disposal of unwanted/unused medications and eliminate the need to wait for a community Drug Take Back Day event.

Learn more about Sharps Compliance’s affordable, DEA-compliant medication disposal solutions.