Police Dogs at Risk: Symptoms and Treatment of Opioid Exposure in Canine Officers

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The law enforcement working dog is one of the most valuable assets for any agency. Some 50,000 working dogs in the U.S. are performing tasks such as narcotics detection, bomb detection, missing person investigation, search and rescue, and article searches. For good reason, law enforcement officers consider police dogs to be their partners—and often family members.

While canine handlers and police dogs have always faced hazards, the danger for both has increased dramatically in recent years with the development of synthetic opioids—including fentanyl and associated analogs, such as carfentanil. The Drug Enforcement Administration issued its first warning to law enforcement agencies in 2016, flatly stating, “Canine units are particularly at risk of immediate death from inhaling fentanyl.”

Law enforcement working canines have always been exposed to all manner of harmful chemicals and substances. What has changed?

10,000 Times More Potent

“The interesting thing to me is that working dogs have been doing narcotics detection and working with police officers for over 100 years, and we really haven’t seen any evidence of toxicities from inhaled compounds in the line of duty,” says Dr. Ashley Mitek, a veterinarian at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine at Urbana-Champaign who has extensive experience with working dogs. “But that has been completely changed for the worse now that there are two drugs on the street, fentanyl, and carfentanil, and those compounds are significantly more potent than heroin.”

According to Dr. Mitek, heroin is about twice as potent as morphine. Fentanyl is 100 times more potent than morphine, and carfentanil is 10,000 times more potent than morphine. A salt-sized granule of inhaled carfentanil may kill a human or a dog.

Since such a small amount can be harmful, the handler or anyone in the area may not see the threat until it is too late. This risk also extends to apprehension canines, since the dog may make contact with a suspect who has been packaging or handling one of these drugs.

Dr. Mitek’s passion for the specialized care of working dogs started after her treatment in 2012 of a Belgian Malinois that required neck surgery after serving five tours with the Marines for in Iraq. She explains that what makes dogs such a valuable asset in law enforcement also puts them at risk for inhaled opioid exposure. “We are sight animals. You lose your keys, and you start looking around for them,” Dr. Mitek says. “Our sense of smell is usually the last sense we use to find missing objects.”

Dogs, on the other hand, “use a completely different algorithm,” Dr. Mitek says. The dog’s sense of smell is hundreds of thousands of times more potent than a human sense of smell, so they rely on it first. “When they are asked to go do something or go look for something, the first thing they are going to do is use their sense of smell,” Dr. Mitek says. “Dogs will rely on that sense more than any other. And that’s why dogs make such great partners with human law enforcement officers—a human’s acute vision and a dog’s acute sense of smell make for a synergistic team. Because dogs are always using their noses, they are probably going to inhale some things they shouldn’t before they realize what has happened. And with fentanyl and carfentanil, it could quickly end their life.”

Symptoms and Treatment

The symptoms of opioid overdose for a police dog are similar to a human overdose. Symptoms may appear anywhere from 1 to 30 minutes after exposure, depending on how much of the drug was ingested, and by what route. Dr. Mitek recommends that any working dog that enters a location with narcotics within reach be watched for 30 to 60 minutes after they leave the building.

If exposed, the dog will become lethargic, have a blank stare, no longer respond to commands from their handler, and not play with their reward toy. Without intervention, these symptoms will progress to becoming unconscious, with a slow heart and respiratory rate. Humans are more sensitive to the suppression of breathing after an opioid overdose compared to other animals. However, given the potency of fentanyl and carfentanil, it is possible that working dogs exposed to opioids will experience respiratory depression, or stop breathing.

“It’s still a very likely situation that we’re going to continue to see dogs that are exposed to these compounds in the line of duty and we may see these dogs become ill or die as a result,” Dr. Mitek says.

Treatment for opioid overdose is available in the field for both humans and dogs, but there currently are questions about its use with working dogs. The usual treatment for humans is Narcan or its generic version, naloxone. This medication is also routinely given to dogs in veterinary hospitals. While many law enforcement agencies have these compounds available to treat humans, their use for police dogs is not so clear.

“As a legal matter, this is a gray area, and it depends on the state’s veterinary practice act as to whether a first responder can legally treat a dog,” Dr. Mitek says. “But the only way we are going to be able to save a working dog’s life is to make sure first responders can treat these dogs in the field. In many cases, waiting to treat the dog until they are at a veterinary hospital may be too late.” Dr. Mitek and others at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, as well as physicians at Carle Foundation Hospital, are currently working on “treat and transport” protocols for working dogs. Dr. Maureen McMichael, head of the emergency department at the University of Illinois, is also working on a smartphone application to provide handlers immediate information for the closest veterinary hospital to their location for emergency treatment of their partner. Dr. Mitek and Dr. McMichael have also developed an emergency protocol for canine opioid exposure.

Treatment involves giving the dog Narcan or naloxone, either by internasal spray, which Dr. Mitek says requires minimal training or with an autoinjector similar in manner to an Epipen. The autoinjector requires more training for use since there are only certain areas of the dog where you can safely inject into the muscle.

Another gray area is how much medication to administer to the dog. “Again, that is supposed to be exclusive to veterinary practitioners, and that’s a hurdle we’re going to have to get over,” Dr. Mitek says. “We need to be able to tell these men and women that are out in a remote area how much to give a dog.” If a police dog is only a little lethargic and the handler suspects a narcotic overdose, Dr. Mitek recommends calling their personal veterinarian for guidance. Obviously, if the symptoms are more acute, more urgent action is required.

As with all things in law enforcement, training is essential. Dr. Mitek and her colleagues at the University of Illinois have been at the forefront of training handlers on the treatment of both narcotic overdoses as well as the treatment of injuries in the field. Her primary recommendations for handlers are to become proficient at administering any type of Narcan or naloxone they may be permitted to carry and to receive training from their veterinarian in both antidote administration and working dog first aid.

Dr. Mitek also issues a warning related to “mouth-to-snout” artificial respiration—putting your mouth on the dog’s snout. Such contact may put the handler at risk of a contact overdose. “In these types of situations involving opioids it could be fatal for the human, since the dog may still have powder on their nose,” she says. She recommends the handler wear gloves to treat the dog, and advises all handlers carry at least two doses of Narcan or naloxone: “What we don’t want is the dog goes down, and the handler gives the dose to the dog, and then 30 seconds later now the handler is going down because he touched the dog, and now there’s no Narcan to give the handler.”

Making Progress

With all the hazards of opioid exposure, there has been one positive development regarding the emergency treatment of police dogs: Legislatures across the country have started taking notice of the necessity of emergency treatment for working dogs. Starting with Colorado in 2014, three other states (Ohio, New York and Illinois) have made it legal for EMS to treat dogs and/or transport them in emergency situations. Dr. Mitek anticipates further advances in transport and treatment for working dogs exposed to opioids or injured in the line of duty. For her, it’s about taking care of both the handlers and their partners.

“Not all officers walk on two legs,” she says. “These canine officers risk their lives every day for our communities. By getting naloxone into the hands of handlers and first responders, and training them to use it, as a team we will save a working dog’s life.”

Diane Loos

DIANE LOOS retired after 25 years from the Dekalb County Police Department in Decatur, GA with the rank of Deputy Chief over Support Services. While there, she attended the 222nd session of the FBI National Academy. After retiring, Diane served as lead instructor and CALEA manager at Georgia Piedmont Technical College Law Enforcement Academy for five years. She is now a Content Development Representative for Lexipol.

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