Dogs Who Overdose Need More Than Reversal Medication

Written by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

drug overdose in dogs

Story at-a-glance -

  • Jake, a 3-year-old golden retriever, was sniffing luggage at a cruise ship terminal in Port Canaveral, Florida, when he was exposed to a drug and collapsed
  • It was widely reported that the dog was administered the overdose-reversing drug naloxone (Narcan), which saved his life, but the Brevard County Sheriff's Office later hosted a press conference to let the public know this was not the case
  • Naloxone can be lifesaving in the case of an overdose of opioids, and it works in both dogs and humans, but it’s not effective for other types of drugs
  • In Jake’s case, it was prompt veterinary care that ended up saving his life; should your dog ingest a medication he’s not supposed to, urgent veterinary care is called for in all instances

Jake, a 3-year-old golden retriever, was sniffing luggage at a cruise ship terminal in Port Canaveral, Florida, when he was exposed to a drug and collapsed. It was widely reported that the dog was administered the overdose-reversing drug naloxone (Narcan), which saved his life, but the Brevard County Sheriff's Office later hosted a press conference to let the public know this was not the case.

Naloxone can be lifesaving in the case of an overdose of opioids, including heroin, morphine and the fentanyl, and it works in both dogs and humans. However, it’s not effective for other types of drugs, such as the amphetamines and ecstasy, which is what it turned out Jake had been exposed to.

Further, it turned out that while Jake’s handler had radioed for naloxone, Jake hadn’t actually been given the drug. The sheriff’s office pointed out that anyone exposed to potentially lethal drugs needs urgent medical care, not just naloxone — and this includes dogs. Sheriff Wayne Ivey explained, "One of our messages is about the falseness of security that you can administer Narcan and it will be OK in a few hours.”1

Veterinary Care Saved Dog Who Overdosed

In Jake’s case, it was prompt veterinary care that ended up saving his life. After inhaling amphetamine residue on the outside of a bag, Jack began having seizures. "He was disoriented and agitated on arrival," Dr. Elizabeth Chosa at the Courtenay Animal Hospital said in a news release. "Initially we tried to get a blood pressure reading, but it was so high it wouldn't read."2

Recognizing the signs of amphetamine toxicity — not opioid overdose — Chosa spent two hours stabilizing Jake’s temperature and heart rate. He has since made a full recovery, but the outcome may have been very different if he had instead been administered only naloxone at the scene and not received follow-up veterinary care.

"We just want to make sure working dogs in the future are protected and get immediate veterinary care rather than just Narcan," Chosa said. "If you do administer Narcan to a working dog and they seem to be showing signs of relief, still seek medical attention.”3

Naloxone Can Be Lifesaving in an Opioid Overdose

Alarmingly, drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50, with the deaths being driven by synthetic opioids like fentanyl, which can be anywhere from 500 percent to 1,000 percent more potent than morphine.4

Not only can pet dogs be exposed to such drugs if they’re in your household, but working dogs are also commonly exposed. In 2016, for instance, 35 police dogs died in the line of duty, some of them due to exposure to opioids.5 As written in the Journal of Special Operations Medicine:6

“Operational canines (OpK9s) of all disciplines — detection (drug, explosive, accelerant), patrol, tracking, search and rescue, and others — are at risk for accidental illicit opioid exposure.

The most serious adverse effect of opioid exposure is respiratory depression leading to slow, shallow breathing or complete cessation of voluntary breathing (respiratory arrest). Naloxone, an opioid antagonist, is the antidote for reversing the effects of an opioid overdose in both humans and OpK9s.”

While most first responders (police officers, firefighters, paramedics) carry naloxone in their vehicles for use in human overdoses, K9 officers may not be aware that the antidote can be used on dogs. Fortunately, the issue is receiving increased attention. For instance, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine and the Police Training Institute have created a training video on reversing opioid overdoses in dogs, which you can view above.

Advertisement
Save 35% on a Vitamin B Complex for Pets 3-PackSave 35% on a Vitamin B Complex for Pets 3-Pack

Pet Dogs Are Also at Risk of Drug Overdose

Working dogs, especially those in the police field, are at particular risk of coming into contact with drugs, but even pet dogs may be at risk. According to the Pet Poison Helpline, nearly 50 percent of calls they receive involve human medications, with the following being the most commonly involved:7

NSAIDs

Acetaminophen

Antidepressants

ADD/ADHD medications

Benzodiazepines and sleep aids

Birth control

ACE inhibitors

Beta-blockers

Thyroid hormones

Cholesterol-lowering agents

The important point to remember is that, should your dog ingest a medication he’s not supposed to, don’t assume that administering a known “antidote” is all that is required for care (and most pet owners won’t have access to such antidotes anyway). Urgent veterinary care is called for in all instances, including in cases of police dogs like Jake who are accidentally exposed while on the job. As News Channel 8 reported:8

“Chosa wants people to know that the antidote Narcan, credited in some reports as saving the dog, had nothing to do with Jake's survival, and is not a substitute for proper emergency care by experts.”