Drug-sniffing K-9s are overdosing on opioids during routine searches: ‘This is a really big issue'

(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

K-9s are an important tool in the fight against opioids – but as a result of their effort, they are dying.

Drug-sniffing dogs sent out to look for opioids are overdosing themselves, according to veterinarian and law enforcement officials who are trying to figure out ways to save them. While law enforcement officials are trained to help users who overdose, for a long time they didn’t know how to detect the symptoms in the dogs they use to locate the drugs.

“This is a really big issue,” said Cynthia Otto, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Working Dog Center, “lots of these canine officers are exposed and their handlers don’t even know what an overdose looks like [in these animals].” 

Otto’s team is hoping to change that. She and her group of trainers and veterinarians have been leading research to examine the effect opioid exposure has on the canine members of law enforcement teams and developing best practices for handlers. 

The issue grew more urgent when three police dogs in South Florida overdosed on fentanyl, which is 50 times more powerful than heroin, during a federal drug raid while sniffing around a suspect’s home.