Viper was an outstanding police dog. Trained to track and take down the most dangerous criminals, Viper was prepared to handle danger and risk. What he and his handler couldn’t anticipate was a packet of drugs dumped by a fleeing suspect that would ultimately lead to Viper’s death.

During the chaos of the July 2011 chase near my North Carolina practice, Viper most likely bit into the scent-covered bag of high-potency drugs, ingesting a lethal dosage.

Death by narcotics is rare for police dogs, but the recent surge in opioid arrests has increased the risks and numbers of K-9s affected. The University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine has launched an awareness campaign to remind the public of the dangers police dogs face and how to treat dogs exposed to opioids.

Opioid Exposure A Risk For K-9 Dogs

According to the Officer Down Memorial Page, 144 police dogs were killed in the line of duty last year. Gunfire was the largest cause of death at 63, followed closely by 56 automobile or vehicular accidents.

While it’s difficult to determine from these reports the exact number of police dogs killed by accidental drug exposure each year, there seems to be agreement within the law enforcement community that the risk is rising. More exotic – and deadly – drugs are appearing on the streets, putting arresting officers and their canine companions at risk for unintentional contact.

Traditionally, illicit drugs such as marijuana and cocaine have been the primary targets for drug dogs. High-potency cocaine ingestion killed Viper, but weed poses little risk to working dogs.

Today, opioids are often involved in drug busts. Heroin (China white, smack, junk), fentanyl (Apache, China girl, Tango & Cash), and carfentanil (an elephant sedative… seriously) are increasingly found at crime scenes.

To put it in perspective, fentanyl is about 50 times more powerful than heroin and carfentanil 10,000 times more potent than smack. It takes less than 2 mg of carfentanil, or the amount to about 1/10 of a penny, to kill a human. Making matters worse, dogs are exceptionally sensitive to these powerful chemicals, meaning even small amounts can spell big toxicity.

Signs Of Opioid Overdose In Pets

Police dogs may be poisoned by licking, ingesting, or even inhaling these drugs. Officers usually can’t tell the difference between methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin or fentanyl powders without laboratory tests; by the time they realize their dog was exposed, it’s often too late.

Clinical signs of opioid overdose in dogs include drowsiness, difficulty standing, blank stare, unable to respond to commands, and unconsciousness. Symptoms usually develop within a few minutes to 15 to 20 minutes after exposure. Death is typically the result of respiratory depression. It’s a lousy way for a dedicated police dog to die.

Fortunately, there is an antidote. Naloxone (Narcan) can be administered to affected dogs intranasal or by injection. All K-9 police officers working a drug beat should be trained in naloxone usage and have it available at all times.

Not all dogs treated with naloxone will survive toxicity, especially when fentanyl or carfentanil is the agent. The sobering truth is naloxone reversal is a poisoned police dog’s only hope. Any working dog believed to come into contact with any illegal drugs should be taken to a veterinarian immediately.

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Raising Awareness, Savings Lives

Veterinary schools, public health and veterinary organizations, and the law enforcement community are all working hard to get the word out about opioid abuse and the unique risks these drugs pose to police dogs. Viper’s death, while tragic, has helped countless other police dogs nationwide by raising awareness of accidental drug deaths in our canine friends.

The University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine has created a training video for law enforcement and handlers that everyone should check out: By working together, we can save both human and animal lives from these deadly drugs.

Updated October 20, 2019

Apr 2, 2017
Pet Health

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