Veterinarians often prescribe drugs for animals which are then diverted and abused by their human owners. This can lead to harm or untreated injury for their pets.

Veterinarians prescribe many different drugs to pets. When a pet is in pain or needs to be sedated, these can include sedatives and painkillers. Unfortunately, many of these drugs are drugs that can be abused by humans. As a result, some people “vet shop” to try to get different veterinarians to prescribe controlled substances to their pets, and then use the drugs themselves instead of giving it to the pet. This type of drug-seeking behavior can lead to drug abuse, dependence and addiction in the human, while the pet’s condition may go untreated.

The Opioid Crisis Moves to Veterinarians’ Offices

The opioid crisis in the United States has claimed more than 840,000 lives since 1999. Due to the risk of narcotic abuse, addiction and dependence, both federal and state governments have significantly cracked down on opioid prescriptions.

This has led those struggling with opioid abuse to try to get prescription drugs in different ways. While some have turned to street drugs, others have sought narcotics from a less-common source: their local veterinarian’s office. In recent years, pet owners have made headlines for diverting their pet’s pain medications to use on their own, or even injuring their pets in an attempt to get narcotics.

Dog Abuse and Prescription Painkillers

Vets prescribe painkillers to dogs to alleviate pain symptoms associated with minor to chronic ailments. Unfortunately, some people will injure their dogs to receive a prescription from local veterinarians, and then will use or sell it themselves. Around 13% of vets have suspected that a pet owner has faked their pet’s illness or deliberately injured their pet to get painkillers.

The scandal has become more prominent in recent years. Veterinarians and police officials have become more vigilant about these occurrences, taking the necessary precautions to make drugs like tramadol more difficult to receive. For example, some veterinary offices no longer carry certain drugs onsite. In addition, an increasing number of states require veterinarians to report narcotic dispensing to a prescription drug monitoring program (PDMP). Although not required in all states, participation in a PDMP program is now a core tenet of veterinary best practices.

Commonly Abused Veterinary Drugs

Common prescription drugs for pets can differ from those used in humans. This includes opioids. Whereas Vicodin, OxyContin and Percocet are common human narcotics, pets are more likely to be prescribed:

  • Tramadol
  • Ketamine
  • Hydrocodone
  • Fentanyl

Unfortunately, these can all be drugs abused in humans.

Tramadol for Dogs

Tramadol, an effective opiate painkiller, is a Schedule IV controlled substance. It is one of the few drugs prescribed to humans and dogs. Though its intended use is to treat injury-related pain, dog owners may abuse the drug for its fast-acting effects. Because tramadol is only available through a prescription, some people may abuse their dogs to receive it.

FAQ: Why do vets prescribe tramadol?

Tramadol is one of the few human drugs safe to prescribe to dogs under guided supervision. The drug binds to brain receptors to respond to pain. Similar to its use in humans, tramadol is intended to treat moderate to moderately severe pain attributed to conditions like cancer, surgery and arthritis. Unlike anti-inflammatory drugs, tramadol does not treat the source of the pain and is typically used in conjunction with other drugs or antibiotics.

Trazodone for Dogs

Trazodone is a generic drug that is available by brand names such as Oleptro and Desyrel. Trazodone can be used as a treatment for anxiety and behavioral issues in dogs. The drug can be prescribed by veterinarians, although it’s only officially approved by the FDA for use in humans.

Classified as a serotonin antagonist reuptake inhibitor (SARI), trazodone helps to balance serotonin levels in the brain. It is not a controlled substance, although some people may abuse it for its sedating properties.

FAQ: Why do vets prescribe trazodone?

In dogs and other animals, trazodone is used to help treat issues like separation anxiety and other anxiety-related conditions. It can also be used to ensure animals rest properly after surgery. Trazodone is not used very often in cats, but it may be used for cats that are anxious about traveling to the vet, for example.

Trazodone can be used to treat behavioral problems in dogs and cats. Behavioral problems are often one of the reasons animals are euthanized, especially if the behavior is dangerous. Trazodone may help to prevent this behavior.

Ketamine for Dogs

Ketamine is a psychotropic drug for animals sold under the brand names Ketaset, Ketaflo, Vetalar and Vetaket. It is a Schedule III controlled substance. The drug is a dissociative hypnotic and can help settle agitated animals as well as treat pain. It can help treat symptoms within minutes. Ketamine can be painlessly sprayed into the eyes of agitated animals, helping to settle them without the person having to risk injury by getting close to the animal to inject it.

In humans, ketamine is abused for sedation, dissociative experiences, hallucinations, and to facilitate rape.

FAQ: Why do vets prescribe ketamine?

Vets prescribe ketamine for animals for several reasons, including sedation, restraint, pain relief and anesthesia.

Hydrocodone for Dogs

Hydrocodone is a Schedule II narcotic that vets prescribe for pain and cough in dogs. It is also used for severe pain in humans, and is a potent drug of abuse in humans. Since 2009, hydrocodone has been the second-most frequently encountered opioid in Drug Enforcement Administration cases.

FAQ: Why do vets prescribe hydrocodone?

Vets prescribe hydrocodone to treat both pain and cough in dogs. The drug is an opioid that binds to mu-opioid receptors in the central nervous system, reducing the symptoms of pain. It also reduces cough by interfering with the receptors in the brainstem that normally trigger cough.

Although the drug is not specifically approved for pain treatment in animals, vets can prescribe hydrocodone off-label for this reason.

Fentanyl for Dogs

Fentanyl is a Schedule II opioid used for animal pain that is 100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin. It is a common cause of drug overdoses in humans and is a dangerous drug of abuse. As of 2017, 59% of opioid overdose deaths in humans involved fentanyl.

FAQ: Why do vets prescribe fentanyl?

Vets prescribe a topical form of fentanyl for dogs needing sedation or treatment of moderate to severe pain. This topical fentanyl comes in the form of a patch and is sold under the brand name Duragesic. Because the animal must be prevented from eating the patch to avoid a drug overdose, the animal may be given an Elizabethan collar to prevent licking and scratching. The animal should also be kept away from children and other animals while wearing the patch.

How Do You Know if a Client or Employee May Be Abusing Opioids?

Around 44% of vets have suspected that a client or employee has struggled with opioid addiction. This can lead to a concern that the clients may be diverting their pets’ opioids for personal use. Some red flags that could signify opioid abuse include:

  • Seeing multiple vets, or “vet shopping”
  • Being a new patient and bringing in a seriously injured animal
  • Asking for medications by name
  • Asking for early medication refills
  • Saying that their pet’s narcotic was lost or stolen, and asking for a replacement

Red flags that a veterinary office employee may be abusing opioids include:

  • Missing pages in the controlled substance manifest
  • Narcotics going missing from the office
  • Volunteering to log in narcotic deliveries when it is not that person’s regular job
  • Missing prescription pads

If you suspect someone is abusing an animal to get drugs, it is important to inform the police. The police will be able to remove the pet from the home and, depending on the state, may be able to charge the person under animal cruelty laws.

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Editor – Erica Weiman
Erica Weiman graduated from Pace University in 2014 with a master's in Publishing and has been writing and editing ever since. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Jessica Pyhtila, PharmD
Dr. Jessica Pyhtila is a Clinical Pharmacy Specialist based in Baltimore, Maryland with practice sites in inpatient palliative care and outpatient primary care at the Department of Veteran Affairs. Read more

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Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.