Now more than ever, people are misusing and abusing prescription drugs — the numbers have been climbing for the past fifteen years. Often people assume that these medications are being bought on the street or swiped from friends and family, but a more bizarre idea has emerged: some pet owners are using their animals as a way to get their next fix.
In response, state lawmakers are trying to navigate this issue. Some argue that the best way to solve the problem is to integrate veterinarians into a statewide prescription drug monitoring database, allowing them to check pet owners for substance use disorders before prescribing controlled substances to their pets. Others say that this would be an invasion of privacy.
But how widespread is the problem? And what can be done? Our investigation into vet shopping continues below.
How does prescription drug misuse relate to vet shopping?
Prescription drug misuse refers to:
- Taking a prescription medication in a dose or manner other than it was prescribed.
- Taking someone else’s prescription, even for a legitimate medical complaint.
- Taking a prescription medication to get high.
The top three most commonly misused drugs are opioids, central nervous system depressants, and stimulants, all of which are available to animals via prescriptions. The problem arises when prescription drug misusers turn to their pets and veterinarians as a drug source.
What does “vet shopping” look like?
Most people are familiar with the phrase “doctor shopping,” or going to multiple doctors or pharmacists to build a larger supply of addictive prescription drugs. “Vet shopping” is much the same, except that people take their pets to multiple veterinarians in the hope of being prescribed.
There are multiple ways to vet shop:
- One pet owner said that her dog, Dolly, suffered from anxiety problems. In response, Dolly was prescribed a dog’s version of Valium — five times per month at five different vet’s offices.
- Another dog owner, a Ms. Molly Lackey Murrow, used seven aliases for her dog in order to keep a steady supply of Butorphanol, a migraine medication she had grown tolerant to.
There are also ways for people to take medications meant for animals without vet shopping:
- A black lab named Deeoge fell twice, and his owners told the vet that Vicodin helped with the pain. Their vet, a Dr. Randall Snyder, prescribed the narcotic for Deeoge as his owners requested it, leaving them with thousands more pills than the dog actually required.
- One woman took Tramadol meant for her dog’s cancer-related pain and replaced it with aspirin.
- Heather D. Pereira of Hardin County, Kentucky was charged with using a razor to cut open her dog’s legs in order to obtain Tramadol.
- There have been cases where veterinarians sell prescription medications for illegal use.
What does the typical vet shopper look like?
Unfortunately, as there isn’t a ‘typical’ drug misuser or abuser, there isn’t a typical vet shopper. However, there are signs to watch out for if you’re a veterinarian or a concerned citizen:
- Claiming that medications were lost or stolen.
- Exaggerating a pet’s symptoms.
- Giving textbook signs and symptoms that would point to prescribing a specific
- Refusing to accept the medications offered to them by a vet or who ask for specific medications by name.
- Requesting to refill a medication early or before the vet believes the pet should have taken it all.
How prevalent is the problem?
There is some disagreement about the number of people who seek drugs this way. In a 2014 report, Dr. Robert J. Simpson, the president of the American Veterinary Medical Law Association, found that there were only about 6.5 cases of vet shopping per year in the United States.
However, Dr. John Kuehn, a Nebraska state senator and large animal veterinarian, says that vets have to be aware that their practices can become a source of misused and abused drugs: “Those of us in the large animal world have dealt with this issue with ketamine for quite some time.”
Still, there is a lack of hard numbers when it comes to this specific issue.
How to prevent veterinary drug diversionAbout a third of American states require veterinarians to send reports to state databases when they prescribe controlled substances. This is only slightly less than the percentage of states that require human physicians to send similar reports (40%).
Some argue that including vets in a bill that would require doctors to check the state’s prescription drug monitoring database before prescribing potentially dangerous drugs —even to animals— would be an invasion of privacy. Others say that any action that lessens drug abuse is worth the legislation, that if veterinarians in all states were required to participate in the Controlled Substances Prescription Monitoring Program, drug diversion, and animal abuse could stop for good.
Either way, paying attention to the signs of vet shopping and drug diversion is a good start toward safety for humans and animals alike.
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