Primus, a Florida police dog, is normally a spirited animal. But after assisting in a federal drug raid early one morning last month, he just didn’t seem like himself. "He wouldn't drink water. He would release his toy very easily. And he was looking lethargic, almost sedated," said Detective Andy Weiman, the head of dog training for the Broward County Sheriff's Office. "We knew something was wrong." Primus was rushed to a local animal hospital. By the time he arrived 10 minutes later, the German short-haired pointer was in very bad shape. His tongue was hanging alienout of his mouth, his breathing had slowed drastically and he seemed to be staring off into space. "He had to be carried in," Weiman said.
The vet noticed that these were classic signs of a drug overdose. It was soon discovered that while Primus and two other dogs were sniffing their way through the suspect's house, they were exposed to unseen fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is 50 times stronger than heroin that is sold on the streets. Fentanyl has killed hundreds of users since its availability spiked in 2013. But the Drug Enforcement Administration says it also poses a "grave threat" to first responders and law enforcement officers, both human and canine. Fentanyl is so potent that even a few grains can be deadly. It can be ingested, inhaled or absorbed through the skin and mucous membranes. Due to the fact that many dealers cut other drugs with it, fentanyl is often a hidden killer, especially for dogs using their noses to pick up a scent.
At Coral Springs Animal Hospital, staffers who examined Primus and the other dogs immediately realized they were dealing with classic opioid overdoses and that speed was critical. "Usually when a person dies of an opioid overdose, they stop breathing. Same with animals," said veterinarian Christopher McLaughlin. "And the treatment for dogs is the same as it is for people." Narcan, a new drug that is an opioid antagonist naloxone, is metabolized as quickly as fentanyl and can reverse an overdose if administered in time. Once a dog receives a shot of it, they typically perk up immediately.
Even before Primus' brush with death, police officers across the country knew fentanyl in powder or pill form could be hazardous during a raid. In August, two Atlantic County, New Jersey, detectives were hospitalized after inhaling the pain killer when a puff of it escaped from a plastic bag of heroin and cocaine during a field test. Field tests have resumed but now officers are protected with respirators, dust masks, latex gloves and long-sleeve shirt.