Veterinarians, beware — the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) wants you to keep an eye out for owners taking opioids prescribed to their pets.

Dog and owner.

Image via Pixabay.

The US opioid crisis has been frequently making headlines in recent years, and for good reason: mortality rates associated with opioid abuse are at an alarming high and continue to climb. The half-century-long War on Drugs, despite draining over a trillion dollars, doesn’t seem capable of curbing these deaths.

Over-prescription of opioid medication, caused by misleading advice offered by pharmaceutical companies, has taken most of the blame for the crisis. Government health services responded by issuing a five-point strategy for ‘front line’ members of the medical community, providing support for addiction treatment, advising alternatives to opioids, and promoting research partnerships.

However, the FDA fears it left the back door unwatched. Despite their efforts to mediate legal access to opioid medication, overdose-induced tragedy still takes place; the agency believes that pet prescriptions may be part of the reason why.

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Pet addiction

An online statement published last week by the FDA draws attention to a rarely considered access point for illicit opioid medications. FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb reminded veterinarians that some pet owners are taking the opioids prescribed for their companions.

“One such important care group is veterinarians who may prescribe them to manage pain in animals,” he says. “That’s why we have developed a new resource containing information and recommendations specifically for veterinarians who stock and administer opioids.”

Gottlieb admits that veterinarians have been left out in the cold on this one. Very little effort has been made to inform them of the risks posed by prescriptions for pets. He also recognizes the role opioids and associated pain medications play in treating both animal and human patients — so they won’t be going anywhere soon.

“But just like the opioid medications used in humans, these drugs have potentially serious risks, not just for the animal patients, but also because of their potential to lead to addiction, abuse and overdose in humans who may divert them for their own use,” Gottlieb adds.

The FDA’s new resource, titled The Opioid Epidemic: What Veterinarians Need to Know, reminds practitioners to follow state and federal regulations when prescribing opioid medication, seek alternatives where possible, educate pet owners, and be vigilant of signs of abuse.

While this is the largest single measure the FDA has taken to combat opioid abuse sourced from veterinarians, it’s not the first such measure in the US. Last year, Maine and Colorado passed legislation requiring veterinarians to check the prescription history of a pet’s owner before prescribing opioids for the animal. Alaska, Connecticut, and Virginia instead chose to set strict prescription limits.

The FDA further hopes that their resource will help put the worries of vets at ease. Speaking to the Washington Post on the topic last year, Kevin Lazarcheff, president of the California Veterinary Medical Association, said that he’s a “veterinarian, not a physician,” so he “shouldn’t have access to a human’s medical history.” The new recommendations don’t require the vets to dig into an owner’s medical history.

“We know that licensed veterinarians share our concerns and are committed to doing their part to ensure the appropriate use of prescription opioids,” says Gottlieb.

“We hope the resources we’re providing today, coupled with the existing guidelines from AVMA, will assist the veterinary medical community about steps they can take when prescription opioids are part of their care plan for their animal patients.”