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K-9 dogs are overdosing during drug raids on the very opioids they’re investigating

A police dog practices sniffing out a hidden object at K9 school in Stone Ridge, N.Y. A spike in the use of powerful opioids like fentanyl means both human and canine officers risk being exposed to stray particles while on the job.
A police dog practices sniffing out a hidden object at K9 school in Stone Ridge, N.Y. A spike in the use of powerful opioids like fentanyl means both human and canine officers risk being exposed to stray particles while on the job. AP

When Detective Andy Weiman’s K-9 dog Primus suddenly stopped moving after a drug raid began last month, the Broward County, Florida officer immediately suspected something was wrong.

The normally excitable German shorthaired pointer “was in kind of a sedated state,” Weiman later told the Sun Sentinel. “He would usually be standing or trying to jump out of the car.”

Primus wasn’t alone, according to the paper — two other dogs on the raid also began showing similar distressing signs. When the canines were rushed to Coral Springs Animal Hospital, doctors discovered the symptoms were related to the job: they had overdosed on the powerful drug fentanyl, which they had been dispatched to investigate.

Weiman told NBC News that by the time Primus and his colleagues arrived at the animal hospital, he was incapable of moving, his eyes were unfocused and his tongue was lolling from his mouth.

"He had to be carried in," Weiman told the network.

K-9 dogs are becoming unwitting victims in the recent rise of synthetic drugs like fentanyl, which is the strongest opioid that can be used medically in the United States and and has contributed to thousands of overdoses and deaths, NBC reported. The singer Prince was one of fentanyl’s most high-profile victims when he died of an overdose earlier this year.

But investigating the proliferation of such drugs has had another side effect: endangering both human and canine officers in the drug’s unsuspecting path.

The risk to both human officers and their four-legged companions has reached the point where the Drug Enforcement Administration released a safety video warning officers to not even touch possible samples of the drug.

“A very small amount ingested, or absorbed through your skin, can kill you,” acting Deputy Administrator Jack Riley urges in the video, according to the Palm Beach Post. "Don't field test it in your car, or on the street, or take it back to the office… Transport it directly to a laboratory, where it can be safely handled and tested."

Some human officers have already seen the hazardous effects of unintended exposure: 11 SWAT officers were exposed to the drug in powder form during a September raid and needed to be hospitalized, according to the Washington Post. The DEA warned that two detectives in Atlantic County, New Jersey, were also sent to the hospital after being exposed to a mix of fentanyl, heroin and cocaine in August 2015.

But while the DEA cautions human officers to protect themselves with gloves and respirators, dogs are more susceptible to the drug for the same reason they are often sent on such raids: their powerful sense of smell.

“A dog can absorb it through his pads. He could sniff it up through his jowls," Weiman, Primus’ trainer, told NBC News. "And fentanyl is so toxic, so strong that the very smallest amount of it — that you couldn't even see — could affect the dog. You wouldn't know they've even ingested it.”

Primus eventually recovered after being given naloxone, an opioid antidote, and all three dogs returned to duty the next day. The Broward County sheriff’s office now sends K-9 trainers out with the same antidote on calls in case a dog shows symptoms of overdoses, NBC News reported.

But the risk to officers remains what the DEA called “an unprecedented threat.”

"It's a whole other level of precautions that you have to take [with this drug] so you don't become one of the victims,” Weiman told the Sun Sentinel.

On September 2, 2016, the Washington State Patrol (WSP) graduated nine dogs from the 20th Explosive Detection Canine Handler Course. One-by-one, Chief John Batiste called up the newly-minted officers and presented them with their official Washington State Patrol K9 badge.

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