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Veterinarians in NC join fight against opioids

May 22, 2019

In 2017, nearly 2,000 people died from opioid addiction in North Carolina. That same year, providers in our state wrote 72 opioid prescriptions for every 100 people in our state, well above the national average.

The state adopted the STOP Act to help track and hopefully slow down the opioid epidemic. Now, there’s a new player in the fight against a human health crisis - animal doctors.

Starting June 3, veterinarians across the state will be required to submit opioid prescription information to the Controlled Substance Abuse Reporting System if they dispense certain types of drugs to a pet owner for the animal. The reason: a growing number of stories from across the country where people are purposely injuring their animals or “vet shopping” to obtain opioids.

“There’s a few people that we’ve suspected. People that come in that are asking for opioids by name for their dog,” says Dr. Jennifer Jones Shults of Quartet Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Hospital in Raleigh.

Shults was part of the team that decided veterinarians should start helping track opioids.

“I think the reporting is needed. We need the data to know if we can identify those people that might be drug shopping at veterinarians,” she said.

Dr. Joe Jordan, CEO of the North Carolina Physicians Health Program and the North Carolina Veterinary Health Program, says the opioid epidemic is a wholesale health crisis in our state.

“I’ve been working in this field for 20 years. It’s all I’ve ever done. I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said.

Like Shults, Jordan welcomes any information, whether from human doctors or animal doctors, that can help slow down the pill pipeline. But Jordan admits this is just another step.

“We’ve got a lot more work to do,” he said.

Research from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine shows an explosion in opioid use among animals that mirrors prescription abuse among humans. During a 10-year period, the school’s opioid prescriptions rose 41 percent each year, while the number of animal patients was only going up 14 percent on a yearly basis.

“A gentleman that taught his dog to actually cough on cue so he could obtain hydrocodone containing cough syrup,” said Jordan, recalling one case where a pet owner used his dog to get his drug fix.

He also mentioned a Kentucky woman who went to jail for cutting her dog on multiple occasions to get prescriptions. While extreme, Jordan says the cases show the power of addiction.

“People thinking with an addicted brain are thinking with an ill brain, and they will do things, say things that they never thought they would,” he said.

The change in reporting means pet owners could see changes at their animal hospitals. If a veterinarian prescribes opioids to take home, pet owners will be required to provide personal information like date of birth so the prescription can be entered into the computer database.

However, veterinarians will not check a pet owner’s prescription history before dispensing. Due to compatibility issues between electronic animal records and the drug database, some vets say it’s too time consuming to submit prescription information.

Shults says many providers may skip dispensing drugs themselves and instead write a prescription that will have to be filled at a pharmacy.

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