Some people, desperate for drugs, injure their own pets to get narcotics from their veterinarian, DEA officials are warning doctors.
One case that garnered international attention: A Kentucky woman used her husband’s disposable razor blades to cut her mixed-breed retriever, Alice, on multiple occasions to get an opioid pain killer.
“I remember my initial feeling of disbelief, this can’t be real,” said Elizabethtown Police Officer John Thomas, who investigated the case.
“It was shocking.”
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Scott Brinks, with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s Diversion Control Division in Washington, cautioned more than 200 Kentucky doctors — including some veterinarians — during an August conference in Louisville to watch for potential drug seekers since animals are now among the victims of the nation’s worst drug crisis.
A doctor asked if it’s possible to search a state database to see if the pet owner has recently gotten narcotics from other vets — a possible indicator of “doctor shopping” for more drugs. Doctors routinely run a similar check when treating people.
Jill Lee, an investigator and pharmacy consultant with Kentucky’s prescription drug monitoring program, said vets can’t run the check on the pet owners since the animal is the patient, even though the pet owner has access to the prescription.
Alice’s owner, Heather Pereira, of Elizabethtown, doctor-shopped at an animal clinic in Louisville and then at an animal hospital in her hometown to get Tramadol, used for moderate to moderately severe pain, Thomas said.
Medical officials at Elizabethtown Animal Hospital called police in December 2014, after noticing several red flags, including cuts on Alice that looked too clean to have been accidental as well as implausible stories about how the dog incurred the injuries. It also was the third time in two months that Alice needed medical attention, with the latest wound requiring six to eight stitches to close two cuts to her right flank.
Pereira initially claimed Alice was cut after rubbing up against a broken part of a gutter and after playing under the car, the officer said. The investigator said Pereira finally admitting she cut her dog.
Circuit Judge Kelly Mark Easton referred to Pereira’s crime as a “selfish act to feed her out-of-control drug habit,” while sentencing the pet owner to four years behind bars for obtaining a controlled substance by making false statements — a felony — and misdemeanor torture of a cat or dog, according to a 2015 report by The News-Enterprise in Elizabethtown. She was released in 2016 and remains on supervised probation, Thomas said.
Now, veterinarians across the state are trained to watch for potential signs of abuse.
“Certainly, we know that people who have a drug problem will do almost anything to obtain them,” Dr. Doug Peterson, president of the Kentucky Veterinary Medical Association, said.
“Is it something the average vet sees on a monthly basis? Probably not. But we need to be concerned about it for sure,” Peterson said.
A veterinarian for 31 years, Peterson said he relies on his experience and gut instinct and watches for a few behaviors that can indicate deception, though he didn’t want to elaborate and give drug-seekers ideas.
Peterson, who treats pets in Frankfort, said he will try to verify the injury by looking for a limp or pressing on the area where the animal is supposed to be hurting to look for a pain response.
“If I think the pet doesn’t need it or the owner is seeking drugs, I won’t prescribe it,” he said. “I ultimately make the call.”
Future vets also are being warned.
Kentucky, which doesn’t offer a college degree in veterinary medicine, contracts with Auburn University in Alabama to offer in-state tuition each year for 38 of the Commonwealth’s future vets — who are taught to watch for drug seekers.
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“The potential for abuse is real,” said Dr. Dan Givens, Auburn’s associate dean for academic affairs in the College of Veterinary Medicine.
Along with intentionally injuring pets, some drug seekers might exaggerate or fake the animal’s injury.
“Due to concerns about drug abuse, some veterinarians are not going to prescribe some controlled substances,” Givens said. “They are not going to have them in their clinics.”
He said sometimes animal hospital staff will give the narcotic directly to pets after surgery but send them home with a less potent pain reliever.
Veterinarians also are trained to ask new clients to sign waivers allowing them to look at a pet’s previous medical treatment. If the pet owner won’t sign the waiver, some vets will refuse treatment.
This article is provided via the Kentucky Press News Service.