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Misused pet prescriptions may contribute to the opioid epidemic

According to researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine and the School of Veterinary Medicine, human demand for opioid prescriptions has been mirrored by an inflated demand for pet opioids as pet owners become more aware of pet pain and animals are subjected to more complex surgical procedures. However, due to the fact that veterinary opioid prescriptions are less regulated than human prescriptions, misuse of veterinary opioids may be contributing to the opioid epidemic.

In their study, published January 11th in JAMA Network Open, the team looked into all opioid pills and patches prescribed to small pets — dogs (73%), cats (22.5%), and others including rabbits, snakes, and birds (4.5%) —  at UPenn’s School of Veterinary Medicine between January 2007 through December 2017. They saw that the quantities of prescriptions, measured in morphine milligram equivalents (MME), rose 41% by the end of the decade. However, annual patient visits only rose 13% throughout the study period.

“As we are seeing the opioid epidemic press on, we are identifying other avenues of possible human consumption and misuse,” study senior author Jeanmarie Perrone, MD, a professor of Emergency Medicine and the director of Medical Toxicology at Penn Medicine, said. “Even where the increase in prescribed veterinary opioids is well intended by the veterinarian, it can mean an increased chance of leftover pills being misused later by household members, sold or diverted, or endangering young children through unintentional exposure.”

“The results of this study suggest that by assessing the rate of veterinary opioid prescriptions, we can develop strategies to reduce both human and animal health risks associated with increasing use.”

The opioids analyzed by the team were the four most common prescribed to pets — tramadol, hydrocodone, and codeine tablets, and fentanyl patches.

“We found that the increased quantity of opioids prescribed by our hospital was not due to increased patient volume alone. It is likely that our goal of ensuring our patients are pain-free post-operatively, particularly for those requiring complex and invasive procedures, has driven our increased prescribing practices during this period,” lead author Dana Clarke, VMD, an assistant professor of Interventional Radiology at Penn Medicine, added. “At the national level, we don’t know the potential or extent of prescription diversion from animals to humans, and what impact this could have on the human opioid crisis.”

This study will hopefully encourage states to enact more restrictions on veterinary opioid prescribing. Maine and Colorado already require pet owner background checks, and Alaska, Connecticut, and Virginia put limits on the amount of opioids a single veterinarian can prescribe to one pet owner.

The more information known about veterinary opioids and their connection to the human opioid crisis, the better government can crack down on the current crisis.

By Olivia Harvey, Staff Writer

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