Sgt. Scott Kivet of the Robbinsville (N.J.) Township Police Department is very attached to Quori, the yellow lab by his side who helps him find illegal opioids.
But Kivet worries that Quori will get a snoutful one of these days and die in the line of duty.
Although no hard numbers are available, a number of police dogs around the country have died as a result of their drug-sniffing duties, said Dr. Barbara Maton of NorthStar Vets, a Philadelphia-area, New Jersey–based emergency veterinary hospital.
The problem is fentanyl and carfentanyl, the opioid drugs often mixed with heroin that have helped explode the opioid crisis in the United States. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says 116 people died daily from opioid-related drug overdoses nationwide in 2016, for a total of 42,249. Of that total, 19,413 died from overdosing on synthetic opioids other than methadone, and 17,087 died from heroin use.
The U.S. Department of Justice recently announced a task force to investigate drug manufacturers and distributors for their roles in the epidemic and has aligned itself with cities, counties and medical institutions that are suing drug companies for reimbursements. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the federal government also would seek repayment for its court costs.
Philadelphia Mayor James Kenney has said opioids have become the leading cause of overdose deaths in the city, and that it is time to find a new way to deal with addiction other than jailing addicts. The city estimates it has at least 70,000 heroin users. As of 2016, fentanyl was found in nearly half the drug overdose deaths, which increased 53 percent from 2013 through 2015, from about 460 to 700. Fentanyl use increased 636 percent during the same period.
In the first four months of 2016, fentanyl was detected in 38 percent of overdose deaths, up 18 percent from a year earlier. The numbers for 2017 are even worse. Through September, there were about 810 opioid overdose deaths. In 2015, Philadelphia saw twice the number of overdose deaths as it did homicides. In Pennsylvania overall, 78 percent of the 1,086 accidental deaths in the state in 2016 were the result of opioid overdose.
Numbers are up in neighboring states, as well. In New Jersey, drug overdose deaths were up 700 percent from 2006 to 2016, with nearly 6,000 overdoses since 2004, three times the national rate. In 2016, 2,221 people overdosed, up 40 percent from 2015. Through the first 10 months of 2017, Delaware recorded 185 suspected overdose deaths, slightly above the number through that period in 2016, when the number for the whole year may have been as high as 308.
Helping humans' best friends
“We’re afraid of it,” Kivet said. “If you get it on your gloves and then touch your face, you could be exposed. It [fentanyl] is 100 times stronger than morphine. When we approach a car, not everything is concealed. It could touch Quori’s nose.”
Once a dog is exposed, there’s a distinct change in breathing, Kivet said. And since a dog’s inhalation rate is faster than a human’s, it can overdose much more quickly. So far, Quori has avoided overdosing, even though he and Kivet were involved in 100 sniffs last year.
“I’m very cautious but not complacent,” Kivet said. “I worry about not if it’s going to happen but when.”
That’s where Paul Ressler and the Overdose Prevention Agency Corp. come in. Ressler, who is blind and whose son, Corey, overdosed on heroin in 2010, organized a training session for dog handlers at Kivet’s request to instruct them on how to inject naloxone if their sniffer dogs overdose.
“He called me and asked if I could give him [an Evzio auto-injector with naloxone] for his dog,” Ressler said. “He wanted to keep his dog safe. I gave him a kit, and it started a trend.”
The first training session was held at the end of January 2018, with about four dozen police officers and their dogs from New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware. A second session is planned for the coming months. Other jurisdictions also have naloxone-training programs, including in the Chicago area and Massachusetts.
Ressler said the kits, which contain two, 2-milliliter doses, cost $3,000 to $4,000 each. Kleo Pharmaceuticals donated 2,000 kits to be used in the training sessions for both dogs and humans.
NorthStar Vets’ Dr. Maton conducted the January training session, which consisted of a presentation on the overall crisis, how opioids affect dogs and how to administer the antidote.
“We gave the officers hands-on training using a practice injector without a needle so the officers could get comfortable,” Maton said. “The training helps keep the dogs safe on the job so they can help keep their communities safe.”