Pet opioid prescriptions have soared. But who’s really using the meds?


A new study by Penn Medicine and Penn Vet has uncovered a 41 percent increase in opioids prescribed for pets over a 10-year period, but only a 13 percent bump in the number of pet hospital visits.

The prescription spike could have been driven by the complex care offered at a veterinary hospital like Penn’s, as well as the desire to spare beloved pets from pain, according to the study authors.

On the other hand, it might also mean all those prescriptions didn’t go to Fido and Fluffy.

“As we are seeing the opioid epidemic press on, we are identifying other avenues of possible human consumption and misuse,” said senior study author Jeanmarie Perrone, director of medical toxicology at Penn Medicine. “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.”

In what Penn called the first study of its kind, the researchers examined pharmacy records at Penn Vet’s Ryan Hospital from 2007 to 2017. They reviewed the patterns for the four opioids prescribed or dispensed to small animals – tramadol, hydrocodone, codeine tablets, and fentanyl patches. Dogs comprised 73 percent of the intended consumers, nearly 23 percent were cats, and the rest were mainly rabbits, snakes and birds.

“We found that the increased quantity of opioids prescribed by our hospital was not due to increased patient volume alone,” said study author Dana Clarke, an assistant professor at the vet school. “It’s likely our goal of ensuring our patients are pain-free post-operatively, particularly those requiring complex and invasive procedures, has driven our increased prescribing practices during this period.”

However, Clarke added, “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.”

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