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Veterinarians worry about their access to tranquilizer xylazine with new restrictions

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Xylazine is a decades-old drug used to tranquilize large animals. Recently, drug dealers have been using it to increase the effects of illegal opioids with dangerous results. Some states are starting to crack down on the drug, but veterinarians are finding those restrictions are cumbersome for their practices. WYPR's Scott Maucione reports.

JUSTIN SABOTA: All right. Come on, Ernie.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Come on, Ernie.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Come on, Ern.

SABOTA: All right. Come on up.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORSE WHINNYING)

SABOTA: So, Scott, why don't come this way?

SCOTT MAUCIONE, BYLINE: Sure.

Veterinarian Dr. Justin Sabota is about to inject a drug similar to Xylazine in a horse named Ernie at a farm in Maryland. Within seconds, Ernie's head is drooping, and his body language becomes lethargic.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORSE SNORTING)

MAUCIONE: Ernie is getting electrical therapy on his back leg.

SABOTA: So sometimes I will give him more sedation than this, but he's a pretty good character. And we're going to kind of see how he - if I need to re-sedate him, I will.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY CLICKING)

MAUCIONE: The Drug Enforcement Administration found Xylazine in 11% of drug overdoses last month. The drug increases the effects of opioids but also causes sores and further depresses vital bodily functions. Sabota says he uses the drug on his horse patients often.

SABOTA: Now I'm going to try to lock it up a little bit more in my controlled drug box, if you will, just because of what's happening nationally.

MAUCIONE: Sabota is being extra cautious for now, but some states like Ohio and West Virginia have controlled the substance in an effort to reduce human consumption. But some vets say the tactic is placing an undue burden on them and may hurt animals in the long run. Dr. Eric Gordon is a large animal vet in Ohio, where the drug is controlled.

ERIC GORDON: Traditionally, that's one of those injectable products that I've kept right at the front of the drawer that's within the easiest reach because in some cases, you need that sedation effect very, very quickly.

MAUCIONE: Doctors must be registered and trained to use controlled substances. They must also properly store and dispose of them. That means reaching for Xylazine to quickly subdue a bucking bronco gets more complicated. If the animal is in danger of harming itself or the people around it, Gordon needs to go through a legally required two-lock system to access the drug. But that's not the only thing vets are concerned about as states put regulations on Xylazine. Dr. Jim Zeliff is a veterinarian who has a leadership role in the American Association of Equine Practitioners.

JIM ZELIFF: It greatly increases the cost both to us when we purchase the drug and to the owners when we use the drugs on their animals.

ZELIFF: He says his practice used Xylazine 400 times in the first quarter of 2023 for things like dental work, exams and other small procedures. Xylazine the safest and most cost-effective way to put most large animals in a daze, leaving vets with few alternatives. Some vets are even having trouble procuring the drug. One company has already said that controlling the substance would make it too expensive and unwieldy to market, ultimately increasing the cost for vets and animal owners or making it unavailable altogether. Ohio vet Dr. Eric Gordon also serves as the president of the state's Veterinary Medicine Association.

GORDON: I have talked to some veterinarians in Ohio that just discontinued dispensing Xylazine to their large animal clients because it's just a headache that they don't necessarily want to have to deal with down the road.

MAUCIONE: While some states have taken action on their own, the White House and Congress are currently looking at ways to walk the tightrope of restricting Xylazine while still making it available for veterinarians. For NPR News, I'm Scott Maucione in Baltimore.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHYGIRL SONG, "HEAVEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Maucione