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Law enforcement and veterinary officials are planning an outreach campaign to educate veterinarians about a new frontier in the opioid epidemic: people so desperate for drugs that they take medication that had been prescribed to pets.

“The misuse of pet medication has serious safety implications — for people and animals,” said Middlesex District Attorney Marian T. Ryan, in a letter that will be printed in the Massachusetts Veterinary Medical Association newsletter this week. “Educating people about the signs of drug misuse, available treatment resources and how to properly store and dispose of all medications is a crucial part of helping to stem the tide of overdoses and death.”

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In her letter, Ryan said she had only recently learned of the issue, when she met a pet owner who said she couldn’t understand why her pet was in pain despite having been prescribed medication. Then, the woman realized that a family member had been taking the animal’s pills.

“It suddenly became clear why the pet had not been getting better,” Ryan wrote.

Because the issue is so new, no statistics have yet been compiled on its scope, said Meghan Kelly, a spokeswoman for Ryan. Susan Curtis, executive director of the veterinarians association, said she is not seeing many cases at all — the problem, she said, is very new and still very rare.

But both Ryan and Curtis are trying to get ahead of it with education.

“We’re being proactive,” Curtis said. “We’re trying to close the door.”

Much of the medication prescribed to animals is the same medication prescribed to humans, Curtis said — only the dose differs. In a pharmacy for humans, she said, pharmacists give patients information on how to store, consume, and dispose of opioids. The veterinarians association is working with Ryan’s office and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health to create handouts so veterinarians can do the same.

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Veterinarians often have close relationships with their clients and they would likely become suspicious if a pet owner started seeking drugs with no evidence that the animal needed them, Curtis said.

The danger instead is for people who have someone struggling with addiction in their home, who may siphon or replace pills.

Veterinarians are still learning about all the red flags, she said. One thing they will be advised is to learn who lives in their clients’ homes.

In Ryan’s letter, she cautioned veterinarians to watch for clients attempting to fill prescriptions too soon, or who insist they cannot bring their pets in for an exam before getting the prescription. She asked that veterinarians review how to dispose properly of medications and identify local law enforcement officials who can help if problems arise.

Curtis said a continuing education seminar will be offered for veterinarians, vet techs, and animal control officers, in which stakeholders, including law enforcement officials, will discuss the issue of humans taking pet medications.

“This is very new, and very timely,” said Curtis. “We’re moving very quickly on it.”


Evan Allen can be reached at evan.allen@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @evanmallen.