Cannabis and animals: Everything you need to know before treating your pet

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As cannabis research on animals continues to emerge, Canadians are increasingly curious about the potential therapeutic properties of the plant for treating their fur babies. Whether Rover is a bit anxious during car trips or Chester the cat is suffering from the joint pain that naturally comes with age, pet owners are turning to CBD treats and infused tinctures to manage a handful of conditions and ailments.

Despite a mounting body of anecdotal evidence, there is still relatively little research on the effects and toxicity of cannabinoids, like tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), on animals. Customer purchasing trends seem to overwhelmingly favour hemp oil for several conditions, but it shouldn’t be assumed to be beneficial in every case, nor should the risks be ignored. There are no cannabis products approved by Health Canada for use on animals. Most consumers are using products designed for human consumption or sourced from the illicit market. As such, any experimentation should be done with caution, and the guidance and support of a certified veterinarian. You should always discuss with your veterinarian about the potential toxicity effects of THC or CBD on your pet.

Studies and applications of CBD oil 

 in a 2016 issue of the  (AHVMA), a quarterly peer-reviewed scientific journal, sought to explore the shopping habits and reasons driving pet owners to treat their animals with cannabis.

Nearly 60 percent of respondents with a dog cited using hemp-derived CBD products for their furry sidekick, with 12 percent of cat owners citing a similar application. Most respondents indicated they use the product to manage a medical condition like seizures, cancer, anxiety, or arthritis.

The majority of pet owners strongly credited the plant for providing pain relief (38 percent), aiding sleep (32 percent), and reducing anxiety (28 percent).

In early 2018,  titled: “Pharmacokinetics, Safety, and Clinical Efficacy of Cannabidiol Treatment in Osteoarthritic Dogs,” was published in Frontiers in Veterinary Science. The randomized, owner-blind, and placebo-controlled review was conducted on 22 domestic canines and led by Cornell University’s Dr. Joseph Wakshlag. 

Over periods of four weeks, with breaks of two-week intervals, each dog was orally dosed 10 milligrams of cannabis oil. The aim was to determine the short-term safety and efficacy of CBD in dogs suffering from osteoarthritis (OA).

The study : regular doses of “CBD oil increase comfort and activity in the home environment for dogs with OA. Additionally, veterinary assessments of pain were also favorable.” More than 80 percent of dogs showed an increase in mobility and physical comfort.

An upside to the recent shift in Canadian drug laws is federally licensed cannabis producers (LP) are now able to research and develop products tailored for animals.

Be cautious and stay informed

Dogs have a higher number of cannabinoid receptors in their brains than humans, so there is an increased risk of activated THC producing adverse effects. Some of the negative outcomes of accidental over-consumption can include seizures, drowsiness, vomiting, and, in extreme cases, coma or death. 

All cannabis products should be stored away from pets to prevent accidental consumption and, in cases of heavy smoke exposure, animals should not be enclosed in a room with a stagnating cloud and should instead be given access to fresh air or the outdoors.

The American Veterinarian Medical Association (AMVA) also  the consumption of cannabis edibles may pose an additional risk as they often contain other ingredients toxic to animals, like “chocolate, raisins, or xylito.”

If a pet is found to have ingested an infused product, pet owners should bring packaging and a list of ingredients to any medical consultations or the emergency room. 

While the risks of THC consumption to animals can’t be overstated, the adverse reactions to CBD are far less dire. When respondents in the AHVMA survey were asked about perceived side effects of hemp-derived CBD on their pets, the two leading reactions were sedation (22 percent reported a moderate or significant effect) and over-active appetite (16 percent reported a moderate or significant increase).

What to know before talking to your veterinarian

Currently, it is illegal for veterinarians to prescribe, administer, or sell cannabis to their clients. The Cannabis Act, which came into effect in late 2018, did little to change the landscape for pet owners and medical professionals, but all Canadians now have legal access to cannabis products.

It is also important to note that veterinarians receive no formal training on the endocannabinoid system and have little in the way of peer-reviewed resources to support their consultations.  It’s often the case that a vet’s experience is limited to treating animals presenting with intoxication-like symptoms following the consumption of THC.

Both the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) and the Canadian Association of Veterinary Cannabinoid Medicine (CAVCM) have urged the federal government to amend the legislation to include veterinarians in the framework. They suggest inclusion will allow for further research, education, and product development. 

In the meantime, the CAVCM suggests pet owners looking to discuss any holistic treatment options for their pet with their vet: set aside time for a “meaningful discussion”, be honest about their concerns, share research, and recognize professional and legal limitations.