Sarah Gill was working at Insite the evening of March 25 when a couple came in with a friend they suspected had overdosed. That in itself was not unusual. People who use drugs in the Downtown Eastside know that they can go to the neighbourhood’s supervised-injection facility for help when someone runs into trouble on drugs.
But this couple’s friend was an adorable, eight-week-old pit bull.
“A couple came in with a dog that they had suspected had licked a cooker [a small tray used for mixing drugs] that someone had just used at their house,” Gill told the Straight. “It looked like the dog was having an opioid overdose. Her pupils were pinned, its tongue was hanging out, and it was only semiconscious.”
Normally, people must be previously registered with Insite to enter the injection room, where the facility’s overdose-response supplies are stored. But staff made an exception for the puppy.
“I said, ‘Okay, I guess I’m going to give this dog some Narcan,’” Gill continued.
Narcan, which also goes by the generic name naloxone, is administered to block the effects of opioids. Gill had used the life-saving drug on humans before, but never on an animal.
At first, she suggested the couple take the dog to an animal hospital, but they said they couldn’t afford that. So Gill called one of the city’s animal emergency clinics and asked for advice.
“I spoke to a vet there, because I wanted to ask how much Narcan you actually give a dog. Because as a nurse, I didn’t know. So he gave me the dose for the dog.”
Gill loaded a small syringe with a dose of naloxone that was just a fraction of what a human would normally receive, and then injected the puppy with it.
“I gave the dog two doses of Narcan and then signs of life came back,” she said.
That caused the baby pit bull to poop. But then, just a few seconds later, the dog came around.
“She just kind of started whimpering and whining,” Gill says. “Then she became more alert, she started to walk around, and she was all cute and puppyish. So she was okay.”
There’s no way to know whether the drug the puppy ingested was heroin or fentanyl. But it was an opioid, as evident in the naloxone shot’s success in bringing the animal back around.
Fentanyl is significantly more toxic than heroin. According to the B.C. Coroners Service, approximately 60 percent of 922 drug-overdose deaths in B.C. last year involved fentanyl. More recently, an ongoing trial program at Insite that lets people test their drugs for fentanyl found that 83 percent of drugs that users believe to be heroin actually contain fentanyl.
Gill said that other staff at Insite and at health-care centres around the Downtown Eastside have similar stories of people bringing in pets who appear to have overdosed.
“A coworker at Insite said they’d heard of another dog possibly overdosing up the street,” Gill explained. “And then today [March 31], at Downtown Eastside Connections, a girl came in with her dog and said that she had brought it into a dealer’s house and realized her dog got really close to getting into some drugs. It freaked her out. She realized, ‘I won’t be bringing my dog into that space again.’
“So it’s a thing,” Gill said. “Let me put this out there: don’t leave your drugs accessible to dogs that are on the ground sniffing around.”
Once it was evident that the dog was okay, Gill gave its owners a take-home naloxone kit, specially equipped with “itty-bitty needles” suitable for an animal the size of a puppy. (Naloxone needles for humans are relatively large, designed to penetrate a muscle.)
“They were really appreciative,” Gill said.