Addicts Turn to Animal Clinics for Easy Access to Painkillers

November 04, 2018 10:32 PM

At one vet clinic, Shannon Toomey called her dog Oso. At another, she called him Monster. Her other dog went by Gus and Bear depending on the clinic.

Toomey, from Rosemount, said she gave her dogs aliases to obtain painkillers from veterinarians across Dakota County - pills prescribed for the dogs that were actually used to feed her own addiction for nearly a year.

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By the time authorities caught on in October 2017, Toomey had already obtained more than 5,000 pills of the opioid, Tramadol.

"As an addict, I was like, 'This is a gold mine,'" Toomey said. "At the time, I was like, 'This is my little secret.'"

A Gap in the Program

Toomey's case highlights a gap in Minnesota's Prescription Monitoring Program (PMP), an electronic database that tracks the distribution of opioids.

A 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS investigation last May found thousands of doctors had broken the law by failing to create a PMP account.

However, that law does not apply to veterinarians because the system is designed to only track patients, and in this case the patients are technically the animals, not their owners.

Currently, there is no effective state-wide system in place to check a dog's prescription history between clinics.

"Animal hospitals are the ones who are not required to report to the PMP, and there's little oversight there so people think it's easy to go there and obtain the drug," said Brandon Kelting, an investigator with the Inver Grove Heights Police Department.

He arrested Toomey in October 2017 after one of the veterinarians became suspicious. Kelting tracked her visits to vet clinics across Dakota County.


A map of the clinics Toomey visited:


"With the vast amount of Tramadol being dispensed, I decided to look around and found nearly every animal hospital in the county was also being impacted by this person," Kelting said.

Toomey was charged with eight counts of fraudulently obtaining controlled substances. This past spring, she pleaded guilty to two of those counts and a judge sentenced her to five years of supervised probation.

State officials have identified the gap in the system but have not filled it. In 2011, the state veterinary and pharmacy boards studied the issue but told lawmakers that no action was warranted.

Opioids in Minnesota

Sen. Matt Klein (DFL), who is also a doctor, tried to fix the problem last legislative session when he proposed legislation to allow veterinarians to track pet prescriptions by looking up the owner's name in the monitoring system.

That measure failed, but Klein plans to re-introduce similar legislation next session.

"It's a flaw, just as you saw, because the pet name can be invented. It can be changed from appointment to appointment," Klein said. "It is clearly a gap in the system and that's one that's more visible now after we worked so hard to close the gap in human prescribing."


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Warning Signs

Last summer, the Food and Drug Administration issued a warning to veterinarians across the country about the potential for abuse – even providing a guide with warning signs and tips on how to spot a patient who is doctor shopping at vet clinics.

Dr. Julia Wilson, director of the Minnesota Board of Veterinary Medicine, said the board is educating vets by sending newsletters and giving presentations. However, she says without changing the PMP requirements, there is little she can do because the state's health privacy laws also apply to animals.

"We have this problem where medical records are considered private, so if I suspect someone, I can't call the next practice and say, 'Hey this client was here and I'm a little worried, they kept wanting Tramadol'," she said.

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Credits

Ryan Raiche

Copyright 2018 - KSTP-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company

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