Increase in Pet Painkiller Prescriptions Could Indicate More Owner Misuse


It was the third of July. I was staying with a friend in Denver who owned a 120-pound Mastiff-Great Pyrenees mix. The dog was lovely if he knew you but highly aggressive if he didn’t. He also wasn’t good with loud noises. I was not looking forward to Independence Day in this household. I wasn’t sure I could deal with 120 pounds of hysterical, barking dog for the whole evening and night until whenever the neighbors stopped setting off fireworks.

Anticipating a rough evening, the owner ducked out to the vet’s office to get a few sedatives, to calm the dog down for the evening.

He came back with a little blue prescription bottle holding pills for the dog. I looked at the pills and was surprised to see ten pills of Valium. That was a lot more that this dog was going to need for one evening. I realized that anyone inclined to misuse these drugs would just have received a real windfall. Fortunately, I’m not that kind of person and neither was the owner. Unfortunately, I wasn’t the first person to make this discovery.

More Growth in Opioid Prescriptions than Visits to Vets

It seems that my discovery has also been made by pet owners who may be siphoning off some of their pets’ prescription medications for their own use. A new study looked into the number of opioid painkiller prescriptions dispensed for pets in pain and compared those figures to the number of veterinary office visits. The study encompassed the prescribing histories of 134 Pennsylvania vets at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine over an eleven-year period. During that time, these vets prescribed:

  • 105,183,689 tablets of tramadol (an opioid painkiller)
  • 97,547 tablets of hydrocodone
  • 38,939 tablets of codeine
  • 3153 fentanyl patches

All of these drugs are favored by those who are addicted to opioid painkillers, along with OxyContin and heroin.

The number of opioid prescriptions handed out increased 41% in this time period but the number of pet visits to the vet only increased 13%. Researchers noted that this increase in pills handed out parallels the increase in opioid prescribing to human patients—an increase that has been matched by opioid abuse statistics and overdose deaths.

Veterinarian checkin a cat

This isn’t completely startling news. News services have reported on other times and places that pet owners compromised the health of their animals just so they could obtain painkillers. In 2014, a young Kentucky woman was arrested after she cut her dog with a razor blade multiple times just so she could get tramadol for her own use.

In Oregon in 2016, two women were arrested after more than 40 dogs were found in terribly unsanitary conditions in their home. The women also had 100,000 tablets of tramadol, an opioid painkiller. Authorities suspected that these women might have been using the dogs as a way to obtain more painkillers.

The Tide Begins to Turn

In August 2018, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued advice and guidelines for veterinarians, acknowledging that these pills have the “potential to lead to addiction, abuse and overdose in humans who may divert them for their own use.”

Like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did for human doctors, vets were encouraged to utilize non-opioid methods of pain control whenever possible. They were also encouraged to check the number of prescriptions for commonly misused drugs that had been handed out to these owners previously–drugs like painkillers, muscle relaxants or sedatives.

The Desperation of an Addicted Person

Because of the way intense cravings for more drugs hijack an addicted person’s thinking, he (or she) will often do or say things he never would if he were sober. He will steal from friends and family, lie to doctors to get pills, even prostitute himself.

When a person feels himself getting dopesick due to opioid withdrawal, there’s nothing more important than getting more drugs. In one case in Ohio, a man stole Christmas presents meant for his girlfriend’s children so he could get money to pay his drug dealer.

Depressed man withdrawing from drugs.

Drug abuse and addiction are also associated with increased levels of crime. Lying to a veterinarian or even hurting one’s pet to get more of an addictive substance can seem completely acceptable when the alternative is suffering excruciating sickness due to withdrawal.

Dentists Also Advised to Restrict Opioids

After medical doctors, dentists are the next highest prescriber of opioid painkillers. But for the 10- to 19-year-old age group, they are the top prescribers, probably because of the number of wisdom tooth extractions that occur in these years. In March 2018, the American Dental Association began to publish guidelines for dentists on how to reduce the number of opioid prescriptions they write after dental surgery or extractions.

It’s only appropriate that government agencies and professional organizations now begin to educate veterinarians on the need to restrict prescriptions of painkillers to cases of verified need. Reducing the total number of opioid painkillers in circulation, no matter how they arrive in the hands of those who consume them, is one essential step in reducing the volume of drug abuse in America. And that’s one of many steps that will have to be taken to overcome the opioid addiction and overdose crisis we are suffering from.

And how did my dog-sitting story end? Two Valium didn’t do much for the dog. He was still hysterical every time fireworks went off even with his owner trying to keep him calm. He’s simply a wonderful guard dog that’s not great with holidays.

Reviewed by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP


Karen Hadley

For more than a decade, Karen has been researching and writing about drug trafficking, drug abuse, addiction and recovery. She has also studied and written about policy issues related to drug treatment.