FDA Warns Veterinarians of Pet Owners Abusing Opioids

By Pat Anson, Editor

Doctors and patients aren’t the only ones under scrutiny for prescribing and using opioid pain medication. Pet owners are also coming under suspicion for diverting and abusing opioids intended for their animals.

The Food and Drug Administration today warned veterinarians to be cautious when prescribing opioids and be on the alert for people who may be using their pets to gain access to the drugs.

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“We recognize that opioids and other pain medications have a legitimate and important role in treating pain in animals – just as they do for people,” FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, said in a statement.

“But just like the opioid medications used in humans, these drugs have potentially serious risks, not just for the animal patients, but also because of their potential to lead to addiction, abuse and overdose in humans who may divert them for their own use.”

Only one opioid is currently approved by the FDA for use in animals, a potent fentanyl medication for post-surgical pain that is sold under the brand name Recuvyra.  

The maker of another fentanyl based product -- carfentanil -- voluntarily surrendered approval for the drug in March because of growing signs it was being diverted. Carfentanil is so potent it was used by veterinarians as an anesthetic on elephants.   

With few options to choose from, some veterinarians are legally prescribing tramadol and others opioids intended for humans to relieve pain in pets. The FDA is recommending veterinarians use alternatives to opioids whenever possible and look for signs of opioid abuse by pet owners and their own employees.

“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 their pets; and taking steps to help veterinarians spot the signs of opioid abuse,” Gottlieb said.

Possible warning signs of opioid abuse are suspicious injuries to animals, a pet owner asking for specific medication by name, or asking for refills of lost or stolen medication.

Gottlieb’s statement was released one week after a small study published in the American Journal of Public Health suggested that some pet owners are purposely injuring their animals to gain access to opioids.

"Our results indicate that we should be paying more attention to how opioid abusers are seeking their drugs -- including through veterinary clinics," said Lili Tenney, deputy director of the Center for Health, Work & Environment at the Colorado School of Public Health.

In a survey of 189 Colorado veterinarians, 13 percent reported they had seen a client who they believed had purposefully injured a pet or made them ill. Nearly half the vets said they knew of a pet owner or employee who was abusing opioids; and 12 percent suspected a staff member of diverting opioids or abusing them.

Colorado and Maine require veterinarians to look at a pet owner’s medication history before dispensing opioids or writing a prescription.  Over a dozen states require veterinarians to report when they prescribe opioids to a prescription drug database.