Doug Robinson: Drug abusers really going to the dogs

Published: Monday, Jan. 14 2013 11:09 p.m. MST

Did you know that dogs in this country have drug problems?

They're called owners.

People.

They use the dog's illnesses or injuries — or falsely claim such — as a means to get narcotics for themselves. Meanwhile, the animal quietly suffers so his owner can feel good.

Isn't that just like a dog?

Good thing they can't talk; the stories they could tell. Drug abusers are going to the dogs, literally.

The other day a young man brought an older golden retriever to a clinic to see Alan Cunningham, a vet of more than 25 years. Cunningham examined the dog and diagnosed severe arthritis. The owner explained that the dog had already tried Rimadyl – an animal version of Ibuprofen – but the only thing that really seemed to help his dog was Tramadol – a synthetic opiate used for pain medication. Cunningham gave him a month's worth of Tramadol, but two weeks later the man was back at the clinic saying he had lost the meds and needed more.

This was a red flag for Cunningham. He wrote a prescription that required the man to pick up the meds at a pharmacy, where prescriptions are monitored in a computer database. A short time later, the pharmacy called and said the man had brought several prescriptions to them from different veterinary clinics recently and suspected he was abusing them; they refused to fill the prescription. The man returned to Cunningham's clinic asking for Tramadol. He was refused and told not to return. He left angry and upset. The dog got no relief. For that, the dog's owner should be whacked on the nose with a rolled up newspaper.

"The problem is becoming an epidemic," says Cunningham. "It happens more often than you would think. Animals are neglected and used so that people can get their fix."

Kathy Howell, another practicing vet of almost 30 years, dealt with a man who claimed he had just moved to Salt Lake City and had run out of medication for his arthritic dog. He asked for enough medication to help his dog until he could bring him in for an exam. Howell gave him five days' worth of Rimadyl, a non-narcotic, so the dog wouldn't suffer in the interim. The man called back later to say that Rimadyl didn't help his dog and asked for Lortab, a powerful narcotic that is often abused by people. He was refused. He called back three times. Finally, he was told not to call again unless it was to make an appointment.

"Animals are suffering if someone is taking the medication but not giving it to the animals," says Howell. "We are all advised to be aware of this problem in classes, newsletters and through the (vet) association."

Recently, Brent Hagloch, who has been a practicing vet for 25 years, was visited by a man who brought his large golden retriever to the clinic with various painful health issues. He wanted Tramadol and argued that because his dog was so big he needed eight pills a day, an unheard of dosage for a dog. Hagloch refused. Later, he received calls from other clinics who said the man had tried the same thing with them. The man called Hagloch again, three or four times in one day, trying to get the pills.

"I see it all the time," says Hagloch. "It's not unusual."

A couple of years ago, a lady came to Hagloch claiming that another vet had prescribed Lortab for her dog. Hagloch obtained the blood work from the other vet; it indicated the dog was not getting the medication, despite a prescription for a whopping 60 pills over a two-week period.

"It was very suspicious," says Hagloch. "That's an astronomical amount, and the dog was not showing signs of pain relief."

Ask Hagloch about solutions and he tells this story. Years ago, in Iowa, where Hagloch was practicing veterinary medicine at the time, the FDA conducted a sting in which agents posing as dairy farmers were able to convince 17 veterinarian hospitals to give them prescription drug medication for their cattle without examining the animals. The clinics were cited.

"Utah is very lax on this, too," says Hagloch. "I see it all the time – vets prescribing meds for people without seeing their pets. I've seen vets who didn't see the pets and never did a follow-up. They just kept sending drugs out the door with the person. There needs to be a doctor-patient relationship. It's not enforced much in this state. The FDA should come in here and do a sting."

Cunningham thinks vets are "an easy target" and need to change their protocols. He suggests that vets work more closely with pharmacies to take more control over narcotic prescriptions.

"The problem is very frustrating," he says. "The bottom line: Animals are neglected and used so that people can get their fix. That is the part that angers me most."

email: drob@desnews.com

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