Pets used as opioid drug pawns could prompt legislative changes

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AUSTIN (Nexstar) — It is a reality that most pet owners would shudder to hear about: tales of animals being abused and taken to the veterinarian, just for their owner to keep the prescription drugs to sell or take themselves.

As a forensic veterinarian, Dr. Melinda Merck knows these cases all too well. She serves as a bridge between the veterinary medicine community and law enforcement working on animal cruelty cases.

“What we’re seeing with animals is people intentionally abusing their animals to get narcotics,” Merck, who practices in Austin, said. She talked about an instance in Kentucky where a woman cut her dog with razor blades to get the pet’s Tramadol. She described situations where animals are given Fentanyl patches, which were taken by people to use themselves or sell. In one case, an Ohio man trained his dog to cough on command, to gag up the medication the pet had received, Merck said.

Some people will go “vet shopping.”

“We’ve seen where people will injure their animal or fake an injury and go to 12 vets in a city in a 24-48 hour period,” Merck mentioned.

“A consequence to the opioid crisis is people are doing horrendous things to their animals,” she said.
At a hearing this week, Texas pharmacists asked lawmakers for an extension on the Sept. 2019 deadline to implement the statewide Prescription Monitoring Program, which tracks people’s dosage of high-risk medication, like opioids.

The focus shifted from human patients to pet patients.

“Similar to in human medical care where we have a guardian or a parent who is responsible for a minor, the parent’s information may be connected to that patient. You would have a human connected to your animal patient, which is who we really want to find, not the animal, per se,” State Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, said.

State Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway, asked Texas Sunset Advisory Commission policy analyst Danielle Nasr if veterinarians were included in the program in other states that utilize it.

According to the most recent data available, Nasr said, “there were 18 states that had laws requiring veterinarians to report to the PMP.”

“Veterinarians are required to record their controlled substances information but do not report it anywhere,” Nasr told lawmakers.

Tracking this kind of animal abuse is in its early stages in Texas, Merck said.

“This is… under-recognized, under-reported,” she explained. We are just starting to educate the veterinarians on signs of the abuse, of the diversion of these drugs.”

The Texas Veterinary Medical Association created a multi-part webinar series on recognizing and reporting suspected abuse to educate veterinarians, law enforcement, and pharmacists.

“Our leadership became concerned about this, causing people to target veterinarians in Texas,” the association’s director of government relations and general counsel, Elizabeth Choate, said. “This is why TVMA has been working hard to educate our members about how to watch out for clients who may attempt to use their pets to obtain controlled substances.”

While Choate said some people try to use their pets to obtain drugs, she said opioids would not typically be the drug of choice to treat pain for wounds or injuries for animals. She said the more powerful medications are usually injected into the animal.

“Generally, a person cannot simply walk into a veterinary practice with an animal and walk out with a supply of controlled substances that will satisfy a human addiction,” Choate explained.

Merck urged further action, in addition to the prescription monitoring program, in order to track people more quickly before more animals get hurt.

“We need to make sure this is closely monitored and enhanced so we can, in real time, capture violations,” Merck stated.

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