This can’t be real, Kentucky police officer John Thomas thought to himself when he got the call from Elizabethtown Animal Hospital on December 4, 2014. Veterinarian Chad Bailey explained that Alice, a female golden retriever he was treating, had identical, 2-inch scars, and he suspected the owner was responsible for both. Furthermore, according to the dog’s medical history, she had been injured and treated for the same injury a half dozen times over the last year. Bailey first called other clinics, warning them not to prescribe the pet owner any more medication. Then he called the cops. “Dr. Bailey knew exactly what the woman was up to,” Thomas tells me. “It was the vet equivalent of doctor shopping.”
Thomas found Alice’s owner, 23-year-old Heather Pereira, in the hospital waiting room. “She had a couple of ‘Failure to Appear’ bench warrants so I knew she was gonna be in my custody one way or the other,” he says. After examining the dog and finding three identical lacerations, he arrested Pereira and took her to the police station for an interview. “She went in circles with me for a while, claiming the injuries were all accidental,” Thomas recalls. Her story also changed multiple times — at one point she even claimed her son flushed the dog’s medication down the toilet. “She doesn’t have any children,” Thomas notes. Not to mention, Pereira’s explanation of the vertical cuts — “they came when she ran past a sharp basement gutter” — defied basic physics. Eventually, Pereira broke down.
“Okay I did it!” she blurted.
“With what?” Thomas pressed.
“My husband’s disposable razor blade,” she begrudgingly confessed. “The one endorsed by the Pawn Star guy.”
Pereira sliced Alice “just a little bit” every couple months, she explained, because she knew the vet would prescribe Tramadol, a mild opioid painkiller developed in Germany for human consumption in the 1970s that was soon discovered to be effective on animals as well as humans, making it one of few medicines — along with benzodiazepines — that work on both groups without a formula change. In the mid-1990s, Tramadol was approved in the U.S, and it didn’t take long for addicts to take notice. There was plenty to go around, too, as it was widely prescribed by both vets and oncologists for doggie arthritis and human cancer, respectively. Today, Tramadol remains the 39th most prescribed medication in the U.S., with more than 19 million scripts written last year alone.
Addicts found veterinarians to be delightfully gullible when it came to prescribing the drug, even if it meant purposely maiming their pets to pull off the ruse. And compared to the more widely abused Oxycodone — which costs $10 a 10-milligram pill on the street — Tramadol is dirt-cheap. (You can score a 1,000-pill bottle for less than $25 if you know the right guy.)
Moreover, when they’re kicked, addicts will do just about anything to get more. “I’d describe opiate withdrawal as the flu times ten,” explains Andre Chen, a board-certified addiction medicine specialist in Austin, who tells me the typical opiate withdrawal includes pain, vomiting, diarrhea and “lots of anxiety.” In fact, the term “kicking the habit” comes from opioid withdrawal, in that drug users often have restless leg symptoms. “Being in opiate withdrawal is kind of like dying of thirst,” Chen explains. “So having a bottle of Tramadol in the house is like knowing there’s a fridge full of water in the basement but you’re not supposed to drink it. It’s nearly impossible to resist taking something that would relieve your symptoms within a few minutes.”
Back in Kentucky, further inspection of Alice’s medical history revealed Pereira had been attempting to do just that by fraudulently refilling her Tramadol stash numerous times. “As a professional investigator and a dog lover, the hardest part for me was Ms. Pereira’s lack of remorse,” Thomas says after a deep sigh. “I needed to answer the why question. ‘Why would you do this to a pet?’ I asked, ‘Would you do the same thing to a human child if you thought you could get away it?’ She couldn’t even give me a straight ‘no.’ All she said was, ‘I’d like to think not.’”
More people intentionally hurt their pets than you’d think, explains Hal Herzog, professor emeritus of psychology at Western Carolina University and author of Hurting Pets to Get Attention and Drugs: A Growing Problem. Neither is the abuse of veterinary drugs by pet owners a new phenomenon: “A former veterinarian friend of mine told me that he would often have clients abuse their dog’s veterinary Fentanyl patches.”
A 2014 national report on veterinary prescription fraud conducted by Robert J. Simpson, then president-elect of the American Veterinary Medical Law Association, presented examples of multiple pet owners obtaining animal medication for their own use, including an Ohio woman who visited five veterinarians to receive diazepam for a small dog said to have anxiety problems and a North Carolina woman who visited 24 veterinarians 180 times in one year to obtain butorphanol for a dog that she claimed had a prior prescription.
Other instances included Dolly, a small dog with purported anxiety problems regulated with Valium, administered during fireworks when Dolly, like most dogs, would lose her shit. Dolly’s owner made a monthly trip to all five of Dolly’s veterinarians, who each prescribed a separate prescription of Valium. Another desperate drug-addicted pet owner in Simpson’s report trained his dog to cough on command in order to obtain cough syrup with hydrocodone. And an Ohio dog owner who obtained a different anti-anxiety medication from three different veterinarians for thunderstorm phobia. A vet reported the owner when he continued to consistently obtain medications throughout the year when no thunderstorms were occurring in that part of Ohio.
Then there’s Molly Lackey Murrow, who became addicted to Butorphanol — a painkiller prescribed by her physician to treat her migraines — which has the same active ingredient as Torbutol, a commonly used doggy drug. Over the course of one year and 180 veterinary visits to a total of 24 veterinarians, Murrow obtained 7,568 dog-sized doses of Torbutrol. Her out-of-pocket veterinary expenditures were roughly $55,000, but it was more than just an expensive ruse, it was incredibly detailed. The scheme involved seven aliases for her dog: “Tots,” “Toots,” “Tippy,” “Pixie,” “Misty” “Pebbles“ and “Diane.”
“An animal’s name is fungible, unlike human names,” Simpson explains. “Pets don’t have driver’s licenses or any other type of governmental identification,” so owners are free to change their identity at will. As such, Murrow falsified records stating that the dog had been prescribed Torbutrol prior to a fictitious move from Louisiana. Several vets became suspicious and attempted to verify the “records.” Upon figuring out the fraud, the veterinarians contacted the DEA, which set up surveillance at several local vet offices. Murrow was arrested and later pled guilty to falsely obtaining the drug.
Cuffing pet-dope junkies like Murrow isn’t easy, though. While 49 states — all but Missouri — track controlled substance dispersal to thwart doctor shopping, only about a third require veterinarians to report to state databases when they dispense controlled substances. In fact, there’s a debate within states over whether the risk justifies the reporting burden. Since the start of 2016, for example, Alabama and Arizona removed reporting requirements for veterinarians. On the flip side, Nebraska formed a task force on implementing requirements starting in 2018. “The opioid problem nationwide only serves to reinforce our role in ensuring that opioids don’t enter inappropriately into the community,” John Kuehn, a Nebraska state senator and large animal veterinarian, cautioned the American Veterinary Medical Association in 2017.
But even as some states push for veterinarians to assess people’s records, many practitioners maintain they’re unqualified to do so. “I’m a veterinarian, not a physician,” explained Kevin Lazarcheff, president of the California Veterinary Medical Association, who told the Washington Post in 2017 that he “shouldn’t have access to a human’s medical history.” That’s because many veterinarians are wary about seeing personal information about their clients’ human owners, much like doctors are hesitant to violate HIPAA privacy laws.
Plus, even if a veterinarian suspects a client is abusing drugs, there’s no set protocol on how to proceed. State prescription drug monitoring programs, or PDMPs, allow physicians and other practitioners to check a patient’s medication history. But at least 32 states don’t require veterinarians to report any dispensing information on the PDMP. (I made multiple requests for comment from the FDA, but received an automatic message in reply, explaining that, due to government shutdown, all employees were currently furloughed.) The one time Lazarcheff suspected a pet owner of abusing drugs, his office called the local police. According to Fairfax County police, the dog owner had taken his boxer to six veterinarians to get anti-anxiety pills and painkillers for his own use, and the owner was charged with prescription fraud.
There are, of course, more innocent cases of humans sneaking a puppy pill or two now and again. In fact, I’d hastened to guess they’re the most common variety of this phenomenon. My friend Ally, for example, a middle-aged professional musician in L.A., had a beloved turtle named Hekla who bit too much. “We tried everything the vet suggested,” she tells me, “spray bottle, noise, changing temperature in the tank, but nothing worked. The vet finally determined she wasn’t right in the head and prescribed 0.25 milligrams of Xanax, twice a day.” When Ally’s mother passed away soon after and she experienced a major stress-related physical reaction, she figured Hekla’s wonderpills might do her some good, too, so she took a couple. “I don’t know if it really helped or if it was just a placebo,” she says. “But it did the trick: My issues resolved immediately.”
Similarly, my 35-year-old friend Abby, a green energy consultant, had an aging collie named Aladdin with dementia who needed help falling asleep in her final days, so the vet prescribed some low-dose canine Xanax, which did the trick. “A few months later, I was gifted my first real adult vacation,” Abby recalls. “In fucking Bali.” Good news — for someone who isn’t deathly afraid of flying. But for Abby, the 23-hour flight was nearly reason to call the whole thing off. “Someone suggested Valium or Xanax, but I have zero meds like this in my life. After some Googling, I learned that doggy Xanax was just smaller-dose human Xanax. It worked like a charm: After half glass of wine, I blinked, and we landed in Denpasar.”
Occasionally, the sham works in reverse, too. Eileen, a 40-year-old woman in Chicago living with a spinal cord injury, gave her beloved, ailing dog a portion of her own opiate stash when she suspected the dog was in pain. “She has cancer, and the tramadol doesn’t work for her,” Eileen tells me. “I want her to be out of pain until it’s time to let her go. Some of my morphine, and she’s happy as a clam. I’ll take the loss for her benefit.”
Meanwhile, before getting off the phone with Officer Thomas in Kentucky, I ask if Heather Pereira’s case is indicative of a larger battle the Elizabethtown Police Department is struggling to win. “The opiate epidemic has certainly touched E-Town,” he confirms soberly, noting a large increase in heroin-related charges, trafficking and overdoses. They’re constantly having to shift their paradigm of surveillance and treatment, he says, because opiate addiction is the most powerful there is. “We have to acknowledge a harsh reality: Opiate addicts are ruthless opportunists. It’s hard for people who aren’t personally acquainted with drug users to realize that their first and foremost passion is for their addiction. Everything else comes second. They’ll do whatever they can to feed it. They don’t care who they have to harm or exploit to get their fix — whether that’s a family member, a child or a pet.”
Pereira was sentenced to 12 months in jail for one count of “Torturing a Dog or Cat” and 4 years in prison for “Attempt to Obtain Controlled Substance.” On a happier note, Alice, the golden retriever, was taken into protective custody and Thomas personally helped the dog find a new owner on a nice farm. “I recently spoke to the owner, and I can confirm Alice has never been happier or healthier.”