A recent CNN op-ed from Jane Desmond brings to light a new issue to come from the heroin crisis. The opioid epidemic is claiming a new species of victim: dogs. It has come to light that police dogs are now overdosing on fentanyl, an opioid that can be 100 times stronger than morphine, and carfentanil, an elephant tranquilizer that may be 10,000 more powerful, mixed with street heroin. Even an amount smaller than a grain of rice can be lethal to a dog.

As of right now, there is no national database that collects information about how many police dogs overdose on this potent cocktail of drugs. The University of Illinois is currently working on creating more so we can have a full picture of the depth of this problem. Dr. Maureen McMichael, head of Working Dog HQ, reported that in 2015, 36 police dogs died from heroin contact.

As the heroin and opioid epidemic grows, so does the concern for dogs in the line of duty. New drugs are becoming increasingly more potent, putting more and more dogs at risk. A new shift in focus is on uniting all members of law enforcement to help protect our canine companions. Dr. McMichael is leading this charge with the help of Dr. Ashley Mitek, another University of Illinois veterinary professor. Together, they have developed the “Working Dog Treat and Transport protocol, which is a guide to help law enforcement understand what to do in the event of a dog overdose. With this guide, the professors are training EMTs and first responders on how to help a dog in this situation.

While law enforcement knows what to do in the event of a human overdose, most have never come into contact with a dog overdose. For example, most EMTs are not trained in how to shave a paw in order to find a vein, or how to clear a dog’s airway. Yet if emergency services could provide intervention on the way to the veterinary hospital, it could save a dog’s life. An overdose can turn fatal within minutes if it causes a dog to lose consciousness and stop breathing.

In addition to these skills, McMichael and Mitek are also conducting training on administering Narcan to dogs who may have been exposed to these powerful opioids. Narcan is used on humans to reverse the effects of opioids, and they are safe to use on dogs, though it is necessary to continue with follow-up care.

While some may be concerned with the costs of this training in light of limited police funding, this cost is minimal when compared to the funds and time needed to train police dogs, who, once in the line of duty, can provide service for years to come. The hope is that Illinois’s model will translate across the country to all police departments, though currently, it is only legal for ambulances to be used for police dogs in a handful of states. In order to save the lives of canine police officers, it’s necessary for all states to implement laws that allow ambulances that are not in use to be used to save police dogs, and all police departments to provide emergency veterinary training for overdoses.


A Surprising Victim of the Opioid Crisis by Jame Desmond
Working Dog HQ