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 Naloxone kits to control overdoses.
The Opioid Crisis
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:
- Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times as powerful as morphine and 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin.
- Police and first responders have accidentally become overdosed via contact with fentanyl.
- Fentanyl is odorless and can be absorbed via inhalation, oral exposure, ingestion, or skin contact.
- The cheap production of fentanyl has caused its use in adulterating other drugs. Many users don't know they're taking fentanyl.
- 2 mg of carfentanil, an amount the size of a poppy seed, can kill a human.
- Drug overdoses have become the leading cause of death for Americans under 50, more than car accidents or guns.
- Overdose deaths have risen from 4,000 in 1999 to over 64,000 in 2016.
- The opioid epidemic costs the United States more than $500 billion a year.
The Role of Police Dogs
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:
- Police dogs are now typically trained from birth to serve in law enforcement.
- The cost of a police dog trained in patrol and detection is over $20,000.
- Police dogs serve on a K9 unit for an average of 6 - 9 years. They live with their human partners full-time.
- Dogs have a sense of smell far beyond ours -- while we have 5 million olfactory receptors, dogs can have anywhere from 220 million to 300 million.
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.
The Dangers of Drug Detection
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:
- Staggering, swaying, or other signs of weakness, including collapse
- Lethargy, drowsiness
- Rapid head shaking and blinking
- Panting heavily, excessive saliva production
- Unresponsive to commands
- Refusing water
- Slow respiratory rate or inability to breathe
- Cardiac arrest
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.
Naloxone to Reverse Overdoses
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 Naloxone 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:
- Proper Dosage: A typical K9 dog weighs from 70 to 90 pounds. Be aware of dosage.
- Muzzling: Always muzzle a dog before administering naloxone. The dog may become confused and aggressive when recovering.
- Respiratory Arrest: Use a face mask or intubation to restore breathing to an overdosed dog. The dog's snout may still contain traces of fentanyl.
- Repeat Dosages: The half-life of fentanyl and carfentanil can be up to eight hours, so additional dosages may be necessary until the dog is conscious and breathing on its own power.
- Response Training: Overdosing due to narcotics detection is a new issue for K9 units, and response training is still limited. Fortunately some veterinarian and police groups have created online training materials to teach K9 handlers about responding to an overdose.
- Funding: Many police departments do not have a large budget for their K9 units, and ongoing care of dogs is already expensive. These departments often rely on community donations for critical supplies like Narcan kits and bulletproof vests for police dogs.
The opioid epidemic in America has had an enormous effect on public health. Police, though trained to respond properly to the presence of narcotics, are not 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 naloxone 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 emergency responders can order Narcan kits here, and more information about our K9 Life Saving Kit can be found here.