Image: moshehar (Pixabay)

A recent survey suggests that some people struggling with opioid addiction might be turning to a tragically desperate method to get more prescription painkillers: Hurting their own pets. And veterinarians themselves may be abusing opioids or helping to illegally sell them.

Study author Liliana Tenney*, a public health researcher at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, was incidentally inspired to look at the topic. Eight years ago, she began developing an online training program to educate doctors about proper opioid prescription use. As part of the program’s rollout, they presented their work to the boards of various state regulatory agencies, including the Board of Veterinary Medicine. She was surprised at the response she got.

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“The presentation was the first time they had even ever heard of this issue,” Tenney, deputy director of the Center for Health, Work & Environment within the Colorado School of Public Health, told Gizmodo.

So Tenney and her team decided to collaborate with the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association to better understand the scope of opioid abuse within the vet world. In summer 2016, they sent out an online survey to nearly 200 veterinary members of the group. The vets were asked various questions about any opioid misuse they had noticed in their practice, as well as how much education they had actually been given on the topic.

Disturbingly, 13 percent of vets said they had encountered a client who appeared to have injured their pets or made them seem to be injured in order to obtain opioids. Forty-four percent said they were aware of opioid abuse or misuse by either a client or a veterinary staff member, including technicians and receptionists, while 12 percent said they knew of staff who were diverting their legal supply to dealers elsewhere.

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Vets may underestimate the risk of opioids ending up in the wrong hands, the survey suggests. Only 62 percent believed they had a role in preventing opioid abuse, while 40 percent were unsure if opioid abuse was a problem in their local communities.

While many vets are licensed to carry and sell narcotics, Tenney and her team say their potential role in reducing the supply of inappropriately or illicitly obtained opioids has been overlooked. “Our research suggests that this is a serious omission and must be addressed,” they wrote in the editorial accompanying their findings, published Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health.

Part of the problem might be their overall lack of education. Nearly three-quarters of vets said their veterinary medical school training on opioids was either mediocre, poor, or non-existent, and 64 percent said they hadn’t received any additional training since they became practicing veterinarians.

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According to Tenney, though, many vets want to help mitigate the opioid crisis, they just don’t know how.

“In conversations with these doctors, they often ask: ‘Well, what do we do? We need to treat pets who are in pain but we also need to know how to identify and handle suspicious behavior.’” she said. “But there’s not a lot of resources or training right now to direct these veterinarians.”

Colorado law mandates that any medical providers, including vets, who stock opioids disclose their prescriptions to an online reporting system. But many still don’t. Tenney says there needs to be more pressure on vets to report regularly, but there should also be efforts to make the reporting system easier to use. And more states could pass laws to make it easier to report people suspected of animal abuse.

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There also needs to be more research into how widely opioid abuse is happening in and around veterinary offices. Given the relatively small, selective sample, it’s possible these findings aren’t generalizable to veterinarians across the U.S.

Tenney and her team have already created an online education course for veterinary providers. She and others are also working on creating a better surveillance program within Colorado.

[American Journal of Public Health]

*An earlier version of this article misstated Liliana Tenney’s affiliation with the Colorado School of Public Health. We regret the error.

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