Health

People Are Stealing Drugs Prescribed to Pets

Veterinarians want to get ahead of this disturbing pattern.

by Susan Rinkunas
Jan 18 2017, 7:54pm

Law enforcement officials in Massachusetts are working with veterinarians to get ahead of what could be a growing problem: People taking opioid drugs that were prescribed to their pets.

Middlesex County District Attorney Marian T. Ryan wrote a letter that will be printed in the Massachusetts Veterinary Medical Association newsletter early next week describing the case of a woman who couldn't understand why her pet was still in pain despite being prescribed pain medication. The woman eventually figured out that a family member had been taking the pills.

The vet association is working with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health as well as the district attorney's office to create handouts that tell people how to store and dispose of opioids. The groups also plan to educate vets on the signs of drug misuse, including owners who seek drugs without evidence that a pet needed them, refuse to bring their pet in for an exam, and try to refill prescriptions early. Vets will also be advised to learn who lives in their clients' homes as it may be other family members who try to siphon or replace pills.

Susan Curtis, executive director of MVMA, said the group will offer continuing education seminars for veterinarians, vet techs, and animal control officers where law enforcement officials will discuss the issue of people stealing drugs meant for pets. Curtis told the Boston Globe that they don't know how common pet drug theft is—and added that it doesn't appear to be a serious problem yet—but they want to prevent it from getting any worse. "We're being proactive," Curtis said. "We're trying to close the door."

It seems Massachusetts isn't the only state experiencing this problem. Lexi Becker, a vet near Albany, New York, told the local NBC affiliate yesterday that she's heard of cases where people intentionally harmed their pets in order to get their vet to write a script for a painkiller called tramadol, which is often used to manage animal arthritis, because it's cheaper than oxycodone. A New York State law limits initial tramadol prescriptions to a seven-day course. 

As the Wall Street Journal reported in October, the synthetic painkiller is already commonly abused in parts of the developing world. Between 2000 and 2012, global consumption of the drug increased by nearly 200 percent, according to the International Narcotics Control Board.  

While it's still too early to say how common abuse of tramadol is in the US, there are signs that the problem may be spreading: Last year, a veterinary clinic in Cleveland was robbed of its entire supply of tramadol. In November, police in Oregon confiscated 100,000 tramadol pills during a raid of a dog-breeding operation. The US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported that emergency room visits related to tramadol misuse more than tripled from 2005 to 2011, from 6,255 visits to 21,649 visits. 

Opioid addiction continues to plague the United States. In 2015, more Americans died from prescription opioid overdoses than from heroin.