Police dogs at risk of accidental overdose in opioid epidemic

Meg Jones, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Published 9:59 a.m. CT Feb. 19, 2018

(Photo: Michael Sears / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

MADISON - Trooper Darrick Lorbecki leaned down to his partner and scratched the Belgian Malinois' ears as the pup looked up to the one person he knows he can trust with his life.
Lord wagged his tail, closing his eyes as his tongue licked his black nose. While Lorbecki's tools of his trade include weapons and electronics, Lord has just one investigative tool, and in some ways it's much more sophisticated than the high-tech gear officers carry.

His nose.

But it's Lord's nose, and those of all narcotics-sniffing dogs that are putting them at risk of accidental overdoses from the skyrocketing use of dangerous synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, which is deadlier than heroin, and carfentanil, which can kill a human with only a few salt-size grains absorbed through the skin.

It's a little-known side effect of the opioid epidemic that working dogs like Lord are at high risk of accidentally overdosing while on the job. With their incredible sense of smell thousands of times better than humans narcotics-sniffing dogs such as Lord are on the front lines of the opioid epidemic.

In December, when all State Patrol troopers were trained to administer Narcan, the nasal spray that counteracts opioid overdoses, to humans, the eight troopers who work with dogs also learned how to use it on their four-legged partners.

Now the medical bags Wisconsin State Patrol K9 handlers carry for their dogs all include Narcan doses.

At the four-hour training session, the State Patrol dog handlers were taught to look for the signs of an overdose, to quickly administer Narcan and then drive quickly to the nearest veterinary hospital.
"Basically it's the same for humans; we're trained to shoot the Narcan into their nose," Lorbecki said in a recent interview at a State Patrol facility in Madison. "Hearing about all the working dogs overdosing, you hope it doesn't happen to you or anybody else."

Among the reports of police dogs overdosing were three in Broward County, Florida, who became ill after searching a home used by someone suspected of selling heroin laced with fentanyl in 2016.

The three dogs became listless, stopped responding to their handlers, refused to drink water and had trouble standing. One of the dogs began hyperventilating and passed out but was revived with Narcan.

The Drug Enforcement Agency issued an alert in 2016 cautioning K9 handlers about the possibility of their dogs, as well as themselves, overdosing through accidental contact with opioids. The DEA gave its K9 handlers Narcan and changed policy now handlers are not allowed to deploy their dogs in any situation where fentanyl is suspected, and the canines are closely monitored for a minimum of half an hour after deployments.

Narcan seems to work on both humans and dogs with the same dosage.

Fentanyl, which is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, is prescribed for cancer patients and those with severe pain and chronic illnesses. Carfentanil, a tranquilizer for large animals, is estimated to be 10,000 times more potent than morphine.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last year that an average of 115 Americans are dying each day from opioid overdoses. While all overdose deaths of humans are reported to the federal government, there's no central database of overdoses of working dogs though the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine is working to create one.

Opioids such as fentanyl can be ingested through skin and the dog's nose. (Photo: Michael Sears / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

"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.

Wisconsin State Patrol K9 officers have not had to use Narcan on their dogs yet, said Sgt. Todd Brehm, dog trainer and supervisor of the State Patrol's K9 unit. While the State Patrol has recovered carfentanil and fentanyl in searches, dogs have not been used so far on those types of cases.

Trooper Alex Trofin, who is based in north-central and northeastern Wisconsin with his 6-year-old Belgian Malinois Cirus, said K9 handlers put their dog to work only after they walk through a building or vehicle to ensure it's safe for their canine partner.

"The dog doesn't really have a filter. Once I give him the command to search for the drugs, I have to make sure there are no loose powders in the house or any needles or objects that might harm the dog," said Trofin.

Zaback, a 5-year-old male German Shepherd that works as a City of La Crosse police dog, accidentally overdosed on heroin during a training session in August 2016. He had found a training aid, bit into it and ingested some of the drug, said Sgt. Tom Walsh.

A photo on a laptop shows the Wisconsin State Patrol's K9 troopers and their dogs. (Photo: Michael Sears / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

Zaback was taken to a veterinarian, treated with Narcan and quickly returned to his job with no ill effects.

Douglas Kratt, a veterinarian at Central Animal Hospital in Onalaska, handles checkups and treatments for the State Patrol's dogs and has worked with the unit to carry Narcan.

Unlike humans who regularly wash hands with water and soap when they get dirty, dogs clean themselves with their tongues and saliva.

"They're at significant risk going to work. They don't get to wear hazmat suits and respiratory masks when they're working in these environments," said Kratt. "We try to keep them healthy and safe."

Narcan is a brand name for naloxone, a drug that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose Time