7 Deadly Drugs Vets Find in Pets

By Dr. Patty Khuly | vetstreet.com

iStockphotoI spent five years of my working life as a veterinarian on South Beach, working the ER shift into the wee hours of the morning for months at a time. The money was good. Some of the people, not so much.

It was 10-plus years ago in the waning days of big cocaine and the height of the ecstasy craze. My clients partied in expensive condos and on massive yachts, and - guess what? - their beloved pets were often in tow. (Yes, even hard-drugging club kids and billionaires' pill-addled love interests adore animals.)

Hence, why it should come as no shock to hear that my job set me squarely on the front lines of the war on drugs - albeit in perhaps its strangest, least visible battle.

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I've been living with these memories for more than a decade and recently thought they might benefit from a dose of oxygen. So now that it's the 51st annual National Poison Prevention Week (March 17-23), I thought it doubly appropriate to raise the issue of illicit drugs and their unintended consequences for unsuspecting animals.

And how better to raise awareness than to list these "seven deadly sins"?

1. Cocaine and Crack Cocaine

I'm not sure why tiny pocket dogs are overrepresented among my cocaine-exposed patients (given that they're too small to reach countertops to sniff or lick the fine white powdered form of cocaine), but perhaps it has to do with their size and the fact that even small doses can kill.

Excitement, a rapid heartbeat and even hyperthermia (elevated body temperature) are typical of exposure to this neurologic stimulant. Because it's such a powerful drug, many dogs and cats will succumb to its effects relatively quickly if they're not treated.

2. Marijuana and Other Cannabinoids

Pets especially love to consume baked goods made with marijuana. Even in its dried condition, it attracts pets. Somehow, anything aromatic that smells so strongly is a big draw for pets - even our finickiest cats.

The signs of intoxication are typically very similar to what you might expect in a severely impaired human (pets are very sensitive to its effects). Though a significant percentage of dogs and cats will display signs of agitation, most pets experience depression, lethargy and vomiting.

The bad news is that while urine tests for humans are quite accurate, testing of pets isn't accomplished so easily. The good news, however, is that pets only very rarely die from exposure. While it's a very uncomfortable experience, they tend to recover fully.

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3. Ecstasy (MDMA)

For a variety of reasons, this amphetamine-class "club drug" isn't as common as it once was. It is, however, still ubiquitous on South Beach. In fact, at a popular concert I attended last month, sellers were brazenly roving the audience.

What's even more telling is that one of my patients was recently exposed. Though her owner denied it, few drugs affect mammalian electrolytes in the same way.

Unfortunately, there's no quick test for it yet. All we can do in these cases is read the signs, eliminate other possibilities and provide supportive care.

Dilated pupils, agitation and elevated body temperature are common and may lead to death. Fortunately, for ecstasy, and for other drugs in the amphetamine class, there's an over-the-counter test for its presence in urine.

4. Crystal Meth (Methamphetamine)

You don't have to watch Breaking Bad or Justified to know our country is currently experiencing a major meltdown in the meth department. Hyperactivity, dilated pupils, tremors, rapid heart rhythms, seizures and severe elevation in body temperature are common reactions in cats and dogs.

5. Other Amphetamines ("Speed")

Staying up late on South Beach apparently isn't as much fun without some pharmacological assistance from other types of amphetamines.

In particular, the increasingly popular use (and abuse) of amphetamines in the form of prescription drugs like Ritalin, Adderall or Concerta (used legally to treat ADHD) means that pets are more likely to be exposed.

Signs similar to those for crystal meth and ecstasy are typical.

6. Mushrooms and Other Hallucinogenic Drugs

Hallucinogens (especially in the form of mushrooms but also as LSD and mescaline) are still popular, especially among certain counterculture crowds. Disorientation, depression, a stumbling gait, vocalization and dilated pupils are typical signs that pets are suffering from the confusion of a drug-altered mentation.

Though pets only rarely die, signs may persist for eight hours or more, so supportive veterinary care and close monitoring are strongly recommended.

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7. Oxycodone and Other Commonly Abused Opiates

Increasingly, pets are being exposed to large amounts of prescription medications that originate in the so-called pill mills that punctuate our South Florida "pain clinic" landscape.

Heroin is another drug of this class that we occasionally see in my neck of the woods. Sadly, it's sometimes found inside dogs used to smuggle large amounts of it into the United States from overseas.

Respiratory depression is the hallmark of this class of drugs' most deadly effects.

Thankfully, not only is there a test to determine whether a pet has been exposed or not, there's also a drug we can use as an antidote. Rapid treatment is essential, however, since pets can quickly succumb because of the potency of these drugs.

In all cases where drug exposure is possible, a pet poison hotline is strongly recommended to help owners and veterinarians deliver the most appropriate treatment. The following two organizations: Pet Poison Helpline and ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center are my primary sources for the above information.

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