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Most police departments in America have a K9 unit, with 50,000 working K9s in the U.S. alone, as their remarkably sensitive noses make them ideal partners in drug detection. But not many people realize that this work can present a unique danger to police dogs.
Police dogs used to detect narcotics have rarely had issues with ingesting illegal substances. That seems to be changing, however, with the opioid crisis in the U.S. The frightening strength of some of these drugs, particularly synthetic opioids like fentanyl, present a new danger to narcotics dogs. Reports indicate that more K9s are suffering opioid overdoses in the line of duty by accidentally ingesting substances during detection. Increasingly, police forces are stocking their K9 units with Narcan kits to control overdoses.
Considered a public health emergency in the United States, the widespread availability of opioids via both illegal and legal means and the increasing strength of the substances have contributed to an unprecedented rate of opioid abuse and overdose. Fentanyl and cartafentanil are so dangerous that increasingly officers are no longer testing suspicious packages in the field.
Some facts surrounding the crisis:
Police dogs have been in service in the modern era for over one hundred years, with the first organized police dog program developed by the police force of Ghent, Belgium in 1899. They've been used to aid in detection since, helping to track everything from fugitives to disaster survivors to drugs and other illegal substances.
Some facts about police dogs:
Working police dogs may be trained for many tasks, and may be present in areas where drugs are not suspected to be. These dogs should be monitored after every search for signs of exposure to narcotics.
Although it takes 20 times the amount of fentanyl to overdose a dog as compared to a human, the direct contact narcotics dogs often have with substances when sniffing to seek them out can lead to accidentally ingesting these drugs. And a dog inhales at a much faster rate than humans, so inhaling narcotics can happen more rapidly. This is particularly true when detecting a narcotic like heroin, which is now often cut with the much cheaper fentanyl.
Signs of an overdose in detector dogs may include:
The DEA does not yet keep statistics of overdoses suffered by narcotics dogs, and many departments are still learning about the dangers of opioids on these dogs, as well as how to respond. It may not even be visually apparent that fentanyl is present, as it is easily mistaken for other substances. Being able to recognize overdose signs in a dog and responding effectively is crucial to keeping police dogs safe.
A medication that blocks the effects of opioids, naloxone may be delivered via nasal spray in both humans and dogs. It is a non-selective, competitive antagonist to opioids, meaning that it attaches to multiple opioid receptors in the brain, which blocks them from accepting opioids. It often goes by the brand name Narcan, and can also be injected intravenously or into a muscle. Its effects begin within 2 to 5 minutes, and last between 30 and 60 minutes. The naloxone dosages found in Narcan kits and similar overdose reversal kits are the most effective way to treat overdoses in the field when traditional veterinary treatment may not be available.
Reversing overdoses in dogs comes with unique challenges:
The opioid epidemic in America has had an enormous effect on public health. Police, though trained to respond properly to the presence of narcotics, aren't immune to their effects. The close contact that detector dogs have to illegal substances makes them particularly vulnerable.
Having worked closely with many law enforcement agencies, we at Mountainside Medical Equipment are well aware of the growing need for Narcan kits to be available to all officers. These are vital tools, and everyone should be made aware of their necessity, especially in the case of police dogs facing an unprecedented danger in the line of duty. That's why we offer a number of custom overdose reversal kits, including one made for K9 police dogs. Interested law enforcement agencies or community groups can order Narcan kits here, and more information about our K9 Life Saving Kit can be found here.