Veterinarians Raise Concerns About Humans Using Drugs Prescribed to Pets

Owners may be misusing their pets' prescriptions.

Prescription opioids are among the most commonly misused and abused medicines, and in some cases, people may get them in an unexpected way. These pain relief drugs, a major driver of the opioid overdose crisis, aren’t always acquired through doctors or on the street. On Friday in JAMA Network Open, veterinarians voiced a major concern: The number of pet owners abusing pet prescriptions is steadily rising in number.

but recently, veterinarians have voiced a major concern: that owners are abusing their pet’s prescription, which a new study demonstrates are steadily rising in number.

scientists published the first-ever study detailing the number of opioid prescriptions written by veterinarians. Their analysis suggests that a heightened awareness of the importance of pain management for animals, and an increase in complex procedures performed in veterinary medicine, has led to an increase in opioids given to pets.

While this study did not look into the use of opioids by the owners of the pets described, senior author and Penn Medicine Professor Jeanmarie Perrone, M.D., argues that an increase in prescribed veterinary opioids, while well-intended by the veterinarians aiding the animals, opens up a dangerous avenue for the misuse of leftover pills.

“We are concerned that with any volume of opioids prescribed, to humans or animals, there are leftover, unused medications that can inadvertently lead to unintentional exposures in toddlers or misuse by teenagers or other household members,” Perrone tells Inverse. “The opioid medications that we looked at are the same for people and animals — hydrocodone, tramadol, codeine, and fentanyl patches.”

dog, veterinarian
There's been an increase in opioid prescriptions given to animals.

This study specifically reviewed all opioid pills and patches given to dogs, cats, and other small animals at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine from January 2007 to December 2017. Perrone and her colleagues determined that, while the annual number of visits to this hospital only grew about 13 percent during this period, the quantity of opioid prescriptions rose by 41 percent during the 10-year study window.

Lead author and Penn Vet Assistant Professor Dana Clarke, V.M.D., explained in a statement that this rise in prescriptions is likely driven by her institute’s “goal of ensuring our patients are pain-free, post-operatively, particularly for those requiring complex and invasive procedures.” But Clarke and her co-authors also emphasize that these high numbers mean veterinarians need to be aware of their role as opioid stewards and put effort into reducing opioid prescribing by looking at other options like local anesthetics.

This study provides needed context for a broader national conversation about the link between veterinary medicine and human health. In August 2018, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D., announced a new guideline for veterinarians who stock and administer opioids — a response to anecdotal evidence that pet owners around the country are misusing their pets’ prescriptions.

Tramadol, opioid
Some vets say owners have come to them specifically asking for the prescription opioid tramadol.

“We’re advising veterinarians to develop a safety plan in the event they encounter a situation involving opioid diversion or clients seeking opioids under the guise of treating pets, and taking steps to help veterinarians spot the signs of opioid abuse,” Gottlieb said.

In a September interview with NBC News, two vets — one from Oklahoma and another from Maine — said they had noticed an increase in opioid-seeking pet owners in recent years. Generally, the vets said, these clients are people they haven’t seen before and ask for drugs by name.

Veterinarians at the University of Colorado are also concerned about the misuse of opioids by pet owners. In August, researchers from the university published an editorial in the American Journal of Public Health revealing that, out of 189 veterinarians surveyed, 13 percent believed they had seen a client who had purposefully injured their pet, made it ill, or made it appear to be unwell. Out of the same group, 45 percent knew for a fact that a pet owner or a member of their own vet team had abused an animal’s opioid, and 12 percent said that a member of the staff from their own office had diverted or abused opioids.

Perrone hopes that this new study will “spur opportunities to look at veterinary opioid prescribing in the same ways that we are looking at human prescribing, to minimize possible associated harms while optimizing pain control.”

Maine and Colorado already run background checks on animal owners’ opioid prescriptions, which veterinarians are advised to look over before they write a pet a prescription. Meanwhile, Alaska, Connecticut, and Virginia limit the number of opioids a vet can prescribe to a single animal. As the number of human deaths linked to opioid overdose soars — in 2017, there were an estimated 47,600 drug overdose deaths in the United States involving opioids — experts are increasingly aware that to solve the problem, animals must be considered as well.