The opioid epidemic is ravaging communities across the country, with families being torn apart and communities left searching for answers and solutions. There seems like there is no end to news organizations covering the latest death. Each day we are faced with another soul leaving us too early.
Law enforcement agencies are our frontline defence in the battle against opioids, but one of their most advanced weapons are now becoming victims of their own success. The new victims of the opioid epidemic are the hard working dogs that make up K-9 units across the country. They are highly trained dogs, who are exceptional at their jobs and have the ability to find what a human could never unearth. But it’s their exceptional sense of smell that is endangering their lives on the job.
With the rise of dangerous synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl and carfentanil, our K-9 units are now operating in very dangerous waters. Both substances are much more dangerous than heroin and it may only take a few grains of the substances to kill a human. And these substances are reeking havoc on K-9 units. Police departments across the country are now faced with a rise in K-9 overdoses.
The issue has become so extreme that some K-9 units go into the field carrying Narcan for the dogs. Narcan is widely used in the field to counteract opioid overdoses in humans, and now police departments are being forced to use the same substance to save their lives of the four legged partners. Officers now take classes on how to identify the signs of overdosing and administer Narcan to save their doggy partner’s life. They also go out in the field with a list of nearby veterinary hospitals who are capable of treating an overdosing K-9. “Basically it’s the same for humans; we’re trained to shoot the Narcan into their nose,” Trooper Lorbecki said in a recent interview at a State Patrol facility in Madison, Wi. “Hearing about all the working dogs overdosing, you hope it doesn’t happen to you or anybody else.”
The issue goes back years and follows the rise of heroin in the US. In 2016, in Broward County in Florida, three different police dogs were reported overdosing on fentanyl while searching homes for the drug. All three show similar symptoms, they became listless, stopped responding to the handler’s commands, and had trouble standing and drinking water. Thanks to well trained and quick thinking officers, the dogs were revived with Narcan. But the issue is on the rise and everyday more working dogs are at risk.
“These dogs are incredible, they find our lost kids, they keep us safe, they find narcotics,” said Ashley Mitek, a veterinarian and assistant professor at the University of Illinois who is spearheading the database of working dogs overdosing on opioids. “The only way we’re going to stop the epidemic is through these dogs because we can’t find the drugs ourselves. The dogs are in harm’s way but we’ll never get on top of this epidemic without their help,” Mitek said.