Now the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is reminding veterinarians of a concerning trend among pet owners, who are taking opioids prescribed for their poor companion.
Last Wednesday, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb published a statement online highlighting a rarely considered access point for illicit access to opioid medications.
“One such important care group is veterinarians who may prescribe them to manage pain in animals,” says Gottlieb, acknowledging there has been little information on the risks of addiction within easy reach.
“That’s why we have developed a new resource containing information and recommendations specifically for veterinarians who stock and administer opioids.”
Titled The Opioid Epidemic: What Veterinarians Need to Know, the resource is a reminder that vets must follow state and federal regulations on opioid prescription, seek alternatives where possible, educate pet owners, and be vigilant of signs of abuse.
“We recognise that opioids and other pain medications have a legitimate and important role in treating pain in animals – just as they do for people,” says Gottlieb.
“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.”
In spite of this investment, the mortality rate from opioid overdoses has continued to climb, reaching such concerning levels that some speculate they’re contributing to a decline in the nation’s average life expectancy.
Blame for this opioid crisis has been squarely levelled at an overzealous prescribing of pain killers stemming from misleading advice provided by pharmaceutical companies.
At a federal level, government health services have responded with a five-point strategy targeting ‘front line’ members of the medical community, providing support for addiction treatment, advising alternatives to opioids, and forming partnerships for research.
While various measures have been put into place to mediate legal access to opioid medications, it seems a back door has been left wide open in the form of pet prescriptions.
Last year, the US states of Maine and Colorado passed legislation requiring vets to check the prescription histories of the pet’s owner before prescribing opioids for the animal, while Alaska, Connecticut, and Virginia set strict prescription limits.
While this might appear to be a reasonable measure to some, some vets point out they’re not exactly qualified to make such a judgement.
“I’m a veterinarian, not a physician,” president of the California Veterinary Medical Association Kevin Lazarcheff told the Washington Post last year.
“I shouldn’t have access to a human’s medical history.”
The FDA’s new recommendation doesn’t require vets to dig deep into pet owners’ pasts. But they are asking for some cooperation.
“We know that licensed veterinarians share our concerns and are committed to doing their part to ensure the appropriate use of prescription opioids,” says Gottlieb.
“We hope the resources we’re providing today, coupled with the existing guidelines from AVMA, will assist the veterinary medical community about steps they can take when prescription opioids are part of their care plan for their animal patients.”
This crisis has been decades in the making, so we can’t expect miracles any time soon.
But even if they aren’t trained as human doctors, veterinarians have a responsibility to the health of our pets.
And if that means noticing when their owners are diverting medication for their own use, it might help if they have the resources they need to respond appropriately.