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Sniffer dogs in the age of fentanyl
By JOHN W. MILLER |July 31, 2018
Naloxone being given to a police dog in a training film simulation
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Quick Takeaway
  • “Canine units are particularly at risk of immediate death from inhaling fentanyl during their work,” the DEA warns.
  • “We recommend that all canine handlers have two doses [of naloxone]—one for themselves and one for the dog," says Ashley Mitek, DVM.

The Florida overdoses “got everybody to notice that we had a problem,” says Ashley Mitek, a veterinarian at the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.

She’s referring to a 2016 incident in Florida in which three canines with the Broward Sheriff’s Office suffered fentanyl overdoses while searching the residence of a suspected heroin trafficker.

Shortly thereafter, the Illinois state police contacted Mitek for help. Last year her team, together with her university’s police training institute, released a video showing how to administer naloxone, the opioid overdose reversal drug, to canines. Since then she’s provided live training to K-9 detection units in several states, including an appearance in Wappinger Falls, NY, just last month.

“We recommend that all canine handlers have two doses,” says Mitek in an interview. “One for themselves and one for the dog.”

Naloxone is administered to dogs either by injecting it into muscle, she continues, or into the nose with an intranasal atomizer. Dogs can be kept alive with oxygen masks, when breathing is depressed.

Primus, whose fentanyl overdose was reversed with Narcan in 2016 (Photo: Broward Sheriff’s Office)

America’s 50,000 police dogs are foot soldiers in the fight against illegal drugs. The most popular type of police dog is the Belgian Malinois, imported from Europe, with an average cost of around $10,000.

For about 100 years police dogs sniffed out explosives and contraband drugs, including opiates, without incident.

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But synthetic opioids, like fentanyl and carfentanil, have been game changers. Fentanyl is up to 50 times more powerful than heroin, while carfentanil is up to 5,000 times more powerful.

“Canine units are particularly at risk of immediate death from inhaling fentanyl during their work,” the Drug Enforcement Agency warns in a flyer widely circulated to law enforcement agencies.

“Fentanyl is so strong, you just need a little amount to put a seventy pound animal at risk,” says David Ferland, executive director of the United States Police Canine Association. “Dogs don’t get addicted,” he adds, “but they suffer the impact of the drug.”

That’s forcing law enforcement to cut back on the use of their K-9 drug sniffers in certain situations, train handlers for cases of canine overdose, and take other measures to prepare their pups for the battle against opioids.

“A dog could detect a teaspoon of sugar in a million gallons of water, or two Olympic-sized pools worth.”

Dogs’ remarkable sense of smell stems from their having up to 300 million scent glands, compared to about 5 million in a human.

“A dog could detect a teaspoon of sugar in a million gallons of water, or two Olympic-sized pools worth,” Mitek says.

Fortunately, dogs are actually much less sensitive than humans to the respiratory depressant effects of opioids, according to Mitek.

“The minimum dose that would kill a human would have minimal effects on a dog,” she says.

Ashley Mitek, DVM, in a police training film (Photo: University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign)

Still, with powerful synethetic opioids, even dogs become vulnerable. Those drugs “can get to levels in a dog’s blood stream that do cause respiratory depression and may lead to acute death,” Mitek explains.

There’s no mandatory reporting on how many police dogs have overdosed or died, so data are limited. Opioid Watch did not find any documented instance of a fatal overdose. The three dogs involved in the Broward County incident survived, though it was a close call.

In that case, officers were executing a search warrant on a suspect believed to have sold heroin laced with fentanyl, according to a sheriff’s office narrative of the event drawn up shortly after the incident. Since the suspect’s fentanyl supplier had been arrested weeks earlier, officers did not not expect to find that drug. They did a preliminary walk-through without the dogs and, again, saw no obvious hazards, according to the report.

Finn, a German short-haired pointer, survived a fentanyl overdose. (Broward Sheriff’s Office)

But shortly after leading the dogs through the premises, the canines began to show “listless or drowsy behavior,” according to the narrative.

“[They] found it difficult to stand, [were] disinterested in attention and did not react to their handlers when approached,” the report continued. “The canines would not drink water and ultimately became unable to stand or move.  Their eyes were open (blank stare) and appeared to be conscious, but showed no signs of reacting to their surroundings.”

Packer, a yellow lab, also survived a fentanyl overdose (Photo: Broward Sheriff’s Office)

The dogs were rushed to Coral Springs Animal Hospital. Primus, a German short-haired pointer, received Narcan, a naloxone nasal spray, while the other two K-9s, Finn and Packer, were treated with fluids. All survived.

In some states, including Colorado, Maryland and Illinois, police bosses have ordered handlers to carry naloxone.

Illinois state troopers with stuffed dog, learning to use oxygen masks. (Photo: University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign)

In Illinois, ambulances meant for humans can also carry dogs if they overdose, says Chad Beasley, deputy sheriff in Champaign County, Illinois. And “most of our handlers now carry Narcan,” says Beasley, who’s worked with dogs for the past five years.

Ideally, Mitek says, naloxone should be administered in the field, to give the dog the best chance to survive.  A dose of Narcan nasal spray costs law enforcement about $37.40 per dose; an Evzio auto injector $180; a single use vial for injection $25; and a multi-use vial $185.99 , she says.

“But that can sometimes be cost-prohibitive to departments with hundreds of dogs,” she continues.

Some handlers, whose departments can’t fund naloxone purchases, buy it anyway out of concern for their dogs, without agency or veterinary guidance. She’s concerned, she says, that some handlers purchase it from unreputable online companies, and have no training in its administration.

By law, she says, she’s not permitted to give handlers advice about how much naloxone to give a dog unless she has a valid veterinarian patient-client relationship—i.e., she’s personally seen the dog.

“This is something I’d like to see change specifically for working dogs,” she says, “so all handlers get Narcan and know how much to give their dog.”

Filed under: Fentanyl