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Vet tech believes addicts use their pets to get pills

(Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images)

Most of the attention is focused on the human toll when we think about the drug epidemic in Seattle, but a local vet technician wants people to know how the opioid crisis is affecting animals and the people who care for them.

Joan (not her real name) has been a vet tech for 15 years. She says the draw is to the drugs they have which are the same quality as those in a human hospital.

“I have worked at numerous, large 24-hour specialty and emergency hospitals in the area,” Joan said. “Everywhere from north of (Seattle) … to south … and I’ve worked in numerous specialty practices.”

“We use everything in veterinary medicine that you would use in human medicine, and then some,” she continued. “So for pain control we’re using drugs like fentanyl, hydromorphone, codeine, tramadol, oxymorphone. It’s a wide variety of different kinds of medications that we have access to.”

She says working in animal care facilities is proving to be dangerous.

“My most recent experiences have been in Lakewood where we have had break-ins in the middle of the night,” Joan said. “We had a doctor chase away a masked man who had come into the hospital at around 3 a.m. and was rifling through our storage area looking for the large safe we had controlled substances in. But didn’t make it that far into the hospital before he was caught.”

Joan says at a local vet clinic in she had worked near a homeless encampment, she would see people break into cars, harass staff, and try to break into the hospital.

She says the animal clinics are easy pickings, something she never considered when she chose her profession. Technicians are at risk because they have access to the safe and to medications.

She also believes there are situations where people are purposely hurting their pets to get drugs. The King County Regional Animal Control says there haven’t been any reports filed against people abusing their dogs for their pain medications. However, according to her, that’s not a surprise with patients who can’t talk.

“In the instances that I have dealt with those types of cases, most of what we are dealing with is speculation,” Joan said. “It is incredibly difficult to say that your dog broke its leg because you did this. But when we have patients who are presented over and over again with for the same injury or a new injury or if they come in for non-specific pain and they’re looking for pain medications. It’s just like humans who are presenting over and over to emergency services at hospitals who are seeking drugs.”

She gave an example of a clinic she was working at in Capitol Hill, where a pet owner who she believed to be homeless came in high brought his dog in for care, claiming they were hit by a car. Since he didn’t have money and the dog was clearly in pain, the vet issued the pain medications. Three days later the dog arrived to the clinic deceased, but the pharmacy requested the same prescription later that same day.

“It was pretty clear to us that this man had, instead of giving the pain medication to his dog that had just been hit by a car, he was taking it for himself and now that his dog was dead and he was now trying to get it refilled,” she described.

Joan has also seen more cases of dogs eating human waste that has traces of heroin, meth, and marijuana. They’re also potentially exposed to communicable disease.

She is coming forward in a bid to inform people about the effect Seattle’s drug epidemic is having on pets.

Law enforcement weighs in

King County Sgt. Ryan Abbott confirmed that businesses like vet clinics are targets of addicts.

“They’re trying to find a place that they can hopefully get these drugs,” Abbot said. “And if they can break in and steal them and not have to do a robbery then they’re just trying to find the easiest route.”

Abbott recommends vet clinics get a good security system, upgrade their safes, and only give keys or access codes to a limited number of employees.

Candace Joy, the CEO of the Washington State Veterinary Medical Association, says they don’t have data as to the frequency of these break-ins around the Puget Sound Region.

“We hear anecdotal stories periodically, including the recent break-in in Maple Valley, but veterinarians don’t often tell the WSVMA when it happens,” said Joy.

Joy confirmed that WSVMA has also heard stories that some pets appear to have been injured on purpose, but the veterinarian can’t necessarily determine if that’s the case. She says the WSVMA is working within the industry to educate vets to increase “necessary tools to handle such situations and to keep their staff and patients safe. And there is a concern that these incidents will increase as access to opioids becomes more restricted.”

According to a piece published by the West Virginia School of Public Health about the hazards of veterinary medicine, there hasn’t been a large-scale study of veterinary substance misuse conducted in the United States.

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