FDA warns of pet owners using animals to get opioids

The US Food and Drug Administration has raised alarm about one way people might access opioids to misuse and abuse: their pets.

As America’s opioid epidemic rages, some pet owners could be stealing pain medications intended for their furry friends, according to a statement from FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb.

“We recognize that opioids and other pain medications have a legitimate and important role in treating pain in animals — just as they do for people,” Gottlieb said in Wednesday’s statement.

“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,” he said.

Gottlieb also said there hasn’t been much information about responsible opioid prescribing for veterinary medicine professionals, and so the FDA developed a resource guide on what veterinarians need to know.

The resource includes information on state and federal regulations, alternatives to opioids and how to properly safeguard and store opioids, as well as how to identify if a client or employee may be abusing opioids and take action with a safety plan.

“While each state creates its own regulations for the practice of veterinary medicine within its borders, including regulations about secure storage of controlled substances like opioids, veterinarians should also follow professional standards set by the American Veterinary Medical Association in prescribing these products to ensure those who are working with these powerful medications understand the risks and their role in combatting this epidemic,” Gottlieb said.

“Veterinarians are also required to be licensed by the Drug Enforcement [Administration] to prescribe opioids to animal patients, as are all health care providers when prescribing for use in humans,” he said.

“These measures are in place to help ensure the critical balance between making sure animals can be humanely treated for their pain, while also addressing the realities of the epidemic of misuse, abuse and overdose when these drugs are diverted and used illegally by humans.”

The FDA statement came one week after a perspective paper in the American Journal of Public Health called for the veterinary, public health, pharmaceutical and regulatory communities to dedicate time and resources to addressing the issue of prescription opioid diversion in veterinary medicine.

“I was thrilled to see the FDA commissioner make a statement that not only validated our findings but also demonstrates why research is so important for good policy,” said Liliana Tenney, a senior instructor with the Colorado School of Public Health at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and deputy director of the Center for Health, Work & Environment, who was a co-author of the paper.

Tenney was unaware of the FDA statement until CNN contacted her for an interview, she said.

The paper included data from a 24-item online survey that 189 veterinarians in Colorado completed in collaboration with a local veterinary society. The survey, which was about the possible abuse and misuse of opioids by pet owners and the role veterinarians play in prevention, was administered in summer 2016, Tenney said.

The survey results showed that 13% of the veterinarians were aware that an animal owner had intentionally made an animal ill or injured — or seem to be ill or injured — to obtain opioid medications.

“This is significant for two reasons. These providers want to ensure the treatment of pets,” Tenney said. “If this is truly the case and pet owners are intentionally harming animals, that’s an animal rights issue. If opioids are being prescribed and aren’t getting to the pets that need them because these drugs are being diverted, that’s a public health issue.”

The survey results also showed that 44% of the veterinarians were aware of opioid abuse or misuse by either a client or a veterinary practice staff member, and 62% believed that they had a role in preventing opioid abuse and misuse.

“We recognize that this … sample, representing 10% of the society’s members, has limited generalizability and cannot be used to extrapolate to all practices. Nonetheless, these data are sufficient to warrant immediate action,” the authors wrote.

American Veterinary Medical Association spokesman Michael San Filippo emphasized in a statement Wednesday that the association has provided resources for veterinary staff to help combat this issue and the association will continue to monitor the situation.

“Though our animal patients are not the ones struggling with opioid addiction, concerns about misuse and diversion are top-of-mind for the veterinary profession, and the AVMA is actively involved in providing resources to practitioners describing alternative ways to treat pain and minimize opioid use,” the statement said.

“While the limited data available suggests diversion from veterinary practices isn’t a widespread problem, that doesn’t mean we should pretend it doesn’t exist,” it said. “In fact, AVMA policy calls for further research to determine the prevalence of veterinary drug shoppers and to further clarify the degree to which veterinary prescriptions are impacting, or not, the human opioid epidemic.”