A surprising victim of the opioid crisis

There's a new victim of the opioid crisis -- and this one has four legs....

Posted: Apr 21, 2018 2:33 PM
Updated: Apr 21, 2018 2:33 PM

There's a new victim of the opioid crisis -- and this one has four legs.

Police dogs are overdosing on new narcotics they sniff out in the line of duty. Fentanyl, 50-100 times stronger than morphine, and carfentanil, a tranquilizer used on elephants that can be 10,000 times more powerful, are being mixed in with illegal heroin for a deadly high. Ingesting an amount as small as a poppy seed of these drugs can kill a dog.

No one knows exactly how many police dogs suffer from such overdoses, because there is as yet no national database, a situation the University of Illinois veterinarians are trying to correct. We do know that, according to data from Working Dog HQ run by Dr. Maureen McMichael, 36 police dogs died in 2015 from contact with heroin.

These new drugs are exponentially more powerful. As the opioid crisis continues to expand, more and more dogs will be at risk.

But there is a solution. By uniting the efforts of law enforcement, ambulance crews, EMTs and state legislators, we can save these dogs from dying in the line of duty. Dr. McMichael and her fellow University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine colleague Dr. Ashley Mitek have developed the "Working Dog Treat and Transport protocol," which they describe as a guide of what to do if a dog overdoses.

Mitek and McMichael are now training emergency medical personnel and first responders to help these police dogs in a life or death situation.

EMTs may know how to help you or me in the event of a drug overdose, but they need just a little extra instruction in how to shave a paw to find a vein or how to clear a dog's airway. Medical help on the way to the veterinary hospital can make the difference between life and death. An overdosing dog can lose consciousness and eventually stop breathing. At that point, the situation can turn deadly in minutes.

To address this risk, Mitek and McMichael are also training law enforcement to administer Narcan to their dogs if they suspect exposure. Narcan, a drug currently used to reverse the effects of opioids for people, also works on dogs, but followup care is needed.

Putting the whole process into motion wouldn't be possible, though, without the passage of a 2017 Illinois law legalizing the use of ambulances to transport police dogs when they are not needed for humans.

To be sure, there are costs involved in training the police officers and first responders to help dogs -- and many police departments are already struggling with limited funding. But minimal training is needed and the economics make sense. Training police dogs is time-consuming and expensive, but once on the job, they can provide years of service to our communities.

The Illinois approach should be a national model for police departments everywhere. A website at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine offers information on this project. So far, only a handful of states, including New York and Mississippi, have passed laws to enable ambulance crews to transport dogs. Transporting police dogs to prevent opioid overdoses is a bipartisan issue. If your state doesn't have laws like this yet, urge your legislators to pass one. They don't take ambulances away from humans; they use empty ones for dogs.

These canine heroes risk their lives for us and ask little in return but praise and a pat on the head. But we owe them so much more, including the medical care that could save their lives.

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