Protecting Police Dogs From Fentanyl

The drug can be extra dangerous when your detective work involves sniffing.

A police dog puts its paw into a human hand.
John Vizcaino / Reuters

In October 2016, three dogs in Broward County, Florida, showed symptoms of overdose after they assisted in a federal drug raid. The dogs were more lethargic than usual, and they refused water. In West Virginia, the Monongalia County Sheriff’s Department has also become concerned about dogs used in drug raids. Al Kisner, the department’s chief deputy, told that they no longer take dogs off their leads in houses that might contain fentanyl, since the dogs could chew on an object covered in the potent opioid and inadvertently overdose.

Fentanyl is 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin—so deadly that just a few inhaled grains can cause an overdose. (A few human police officers have been hospitalized after accidentally inhaling puffs of the substance.) That can be a problem when sniffing is a police dog’s primary mode of detective work.

Fully trained police dogs are worth around $30,000 each, and police departments are looking for ways to protect these four-legged officers on the job. Colorado is equipping all of its police canine teams with Narcan, the overdose-reversal drug. Police in Canada are training dogs on liquid, rather than powder, fentanyl to minimize the risk of exposure during training. Maryland state police also carry Narcan for their dogs and are trained to look for “excessive drooling and severe limping” as symptoms of overdose. Illinois even has a law that allows for the use of ambulances to transport police dogs, if they aren’t needed for humans.

The DEA doesn’t keep records of canine overdoses, but experts say the overdoses, if they happen, are rare. Fentanyl has medical uses, after all, says Robert Palmer, the president of the American Academy of Clinical Toxicology. The people who are overdosing are primarily fentanyl users, not first responders—be they human or animal. “Even the fentanyl derivatives like carfentanil, vets have been using that for decades,” Palmer said. “We’re not inundated with dead veterinarians.”

Indeed, experts couldn’t tell me of a single police dog that has died of an accidental fentanyl overdose. For one thing, it takes 20 times as much fentanyl to affect a dog as it does a person, according to Cynthia Otto, the executive director of the Working Dog Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

Overdoses, however, sometimes look different in dogs than in humans, so that could be something to watch out for. Otto said fentanyl can sometimes make dogs excited, so that they pant and pace instead of passing out like a human would. The real risk comes from the dog getting fentanyl on its fur and bringing it back to the human handler, who might pet the dog and get traces of the drug on his or her hands. Otto recommends teaching all dogs to do “passive alerts”—to sit and stare at the drugs, rather than to touch them.

The good news is, if a police dog is exposed to fentanyl, Otto says, there aren’t any lasting effects after it recovers. It can go right back to work keeping humans safe.