A ‘tail’ of two poisonings – Dr. Sheila Hoe shares her story of being exposed to fentanyl through one of her furry patients

According to the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center AnTox database, marijuana, amphetamines, cocaine, heroin, and hallucinogenic mushrooms are five of the most common illicit drugs companion animals and working police dogs are exposed to. When a pet is exposed to an illegal drug, pet owners do not always know what the dog ingested, or they don’t want to admit having the drugs in their possession. This unfortunately means diagnosis and treatment of these pets are sometimes delayed.

Additionally, with the legalization of marijuana in Canada, there has been an increase in accidental exposure to dogs, children and less commonly, cats. The most common cases involve pets ingesting marijuana-laced baked goods. In these cases, there may be additional toxic ingredients involved—such as chocolate, raisins, or xylitol—which result in a poorer prognosis.

A Tail of Two poisonings – Dr. Sheila Hoe’s story

At Boundary Bay Veterinary Specialty Hospital, our emergency and critical care team’s primary concern is saving your pet. Withholding any information could cost your pet their life AND it could also be dangerous to the veterinary personnel who handle your animal.

Dr. Sheila Hoe

Dr. Sheila Hoe, one of our veterinary critical care residents, knows this all too well. Recently, Dr. Hoe was on her shift in the ER, and was called to the front reception area for a walk-in patient. The hysterical owner was holding in her arms a five-month-old, unresponsive Husky puppy. Dr. Hoe sprang into action and took the dog in her arms to transfer him to the emergency triage area. Unfortunately, because she had hurried to the front to help, she was not wearing any gloves when she first picked up the dog.

Upon examination in the triage area, Dr. Hoe found that the puppy had a very low heart rate (34-40 bpm), it’s pupils were dilated, and its gums were pale. Dr. Hoe worked with her team to insert an IV catheter, and she stood at the dog’s head to shave the area for the needle.

The reception team continued to question the owner about the dog’s history and whereabouts, and quickly discovered that the dog had been running in a park, and that he might have found and sniffed a powder on the ground. Based on his symptoms and this information, the team began to suspect drug poisoning. They immediately administered an opioid reversal medication, and the puppy began to respond.

But then Dr. Hoe began to feel unwell. She squatted down beside the emergency table to try to get control of the rush of nausea and exhaustion that was overwhelming her. Dr. Hoe had never experienced a feeling like it – she kept reminding herself to breathe. A veterinary technologist on her team noted that she was pale and reached out to catch her as she fell. Suddenly, there were two patients that needed emergency care.

Dr. Hoe’s colleagues realized that she had also been exposed to the drugs in and on the puppy through her hands and respiratory system. They quickly took her to wash off and called 911. In the ambulance ride, the EMTs administered fluids through an IV, and the hospital kept her for observation until the her symptoms subsided. Unfortunately, the hospital could not administer a drug test or an antidote, as street drugs are cut with so many other substances, they often don’t show up well on testing. Since her symptoms were abating, the doctor said that she would just have to let the drugs work through her system. The following day, Dr. Hoe was mostly back to normal, and although she had the worst hangover of her life, luckily the aftereffects were not long-lasting.

Dr. Hoe’s experience is not uncommon, and she and her emergency and critical care team have seen many instances of illicit (and legal) drug poisonings in the emergency room at Boundary Bay. When asked what would help her and her team with pets who have been exposed, she said, “As vets, we don’t care if you have drugs at home – we need to know exactly what your pet has gotten into. There is no judgement from us, and we won’t report people; the information shared is confidential. We just want to treat the animals appropriately. Knowing what the animal might have ingested helps speed up our diagnosis and their probable recovery.”

How to know if your pet has been exposed to drugs, and what to do

The most common clinical signs of drug exposure in animals are ataxia or incoordination, and lethargy or depression. Other common clinical signs are vomiting, urinary incontinence, increased sensitivity to motion or sound, head bobbing, dilated pupils, increased salivation, and a slower than normal heart rate.

If you know or suspect your dog has consumed or been exposed to any type of drug, contact the Pet Poison Helpline (855) 764-7661, ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center (888) 426-4435, and/or seek emergency veterinary care IMMEDIATELY. Be sure to inform the veterinarian what you know or suspect your pet was exposed to, whether it is legal or not.

Boundary Bay is open 24/7 for emergencies; we are  VECCS Level 1 certified, and are capable of handling even the most critical, life-threatening emergencies and trauma, with specialists on staff and on-call to handle any medical or surgical issue.


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