Cannabis and Pets: A Guide to an Industry on the Rise

From medical cannabis for pets to accidental THC ingestion, an overview of marijuana and pets.
Last Modified: February 25, 2019

As the cannabis industry for humans has boomed, so has the medical cannabis industry for pets. Both of these events have sparked an increased interest and many questions surrounding cannabis for pets. If it works for humans, is medical marijuana for pets a good idea? What about recreational marijuana – how harmful is it if a pet consumes their owner’s stash?

Due to prohibition on marijuana that still exists in many places, as well as stigma surrounding cannabis consumption, many veterinarians are hesitant or unable to recommend its use for pets. Even worse, many pet owners are nervous to discuss the issue with their veterinarians – whether their pets consumed marijuana accidentally or have been receiving some form of cannabis for medical purposes.

This leads to a lot of misunderstanding about cannabis for pets, from the benefits of CBD and hemp-based cannabis products to the dangers of THC toxicity caused by consuming marijuana flower, oils, or edibles. Many owners find that proper education about these topics helps them take better care of their pets.

Medical Cannabis for Pets

The pet industry is a monster – and one that’s steadily getting larger. In 2017 (the last year for which numbers are available), owners spent $69.51 billion on their pets in the U.S. alone. Spending on four-legged, winged, and scaled friends was expected to rise to $72.13 billion in 2018. This includes food, supplies, veterinary care, and other services like grooming.

Owners looking for cannabis-derived health products for their pets are a growing part of the overall market. According to New Frontier Data, the sale of hemp-derived pet supplies reached $13 million in 2017. By 2022, that number is expected to hit $125 million. A large portion of these numbers are due to the newly-emerging market in pet products that contain CBD (cannabidiol), a non-psychoactive ingredient found in both marijuana and hemp.

Medical marijuana for pets began to take off just after the industry began to open up for humans. With medical legalization happening in a growing number of areas, people discovered that cannabis worked well for their health problems and began to wonder if it would work for their pets, as well. Some people tried feeding human medical marijuana edibles to their painful or ailing pets. While this generated success stories, it was also the cause of cautionary tales, as THC can be toxic to pets.

Despite the current industry boom, most pet owners are still left to do their own research and test out different remedies on their pets to see what works and what doesn’t. This is because due to marijuana still being deemed illegal in many places (including by the U.S. federal government), many veterinarians are prohibited from discussing its medical use with their patients. Even the website for the American Veterinary Medical Association only offers information for treating marijuana toxicity while reminding vets of its illegal status in the eyes of the U.S. government.

Pet Conditions Cannabis Is Used to Treat

Just as many people have found that medical cannabis was a non-pharmaceutical option for many different symptoms and illnesses, they’ve also discovered that it works for many of the same conditions in their pets. Medical cannabis includes marijuana products that have THC (the ingredient that causes a high), but it also includes CBD- and hemp-based products that cause no intoxication. Research has found that the cannabinoids, or active ingredients within cannabis, present in these products can help many conditions, including the following:

Pain

One of the most common reasons people look into cannabis for pets is to treat pain, whether it’s caused by an ongoing condition like arthritis or a temporary condition like an injury. Just as in humans, pharmaceutical pain medications for pets can cause sedation, stomach problems, and even kidney issues if used long term.

While THC is effective at treating pain, it can be extremely sedating and also presents the risk of toxicity in animals. CBD carries none of these risks and at the right doses, can kill pain and reduce inflammation. In addition to not causing kidney issues, cannabis has been studied as a potential treatment for kidney disease. For some pets, it can present a safer and more tolerable pain management option than traditional pharmaceutical pet medications.

Anxiety

Another condition that often causes pet owners to use medical marijuana and hemp-derived products is anxiety. Some pets get separation anxiety when their owners go away, while others may generally feel anxious due to personality, age, or illness. Traditional anxiety medications can make pets feel sluggish and sleepy. Meanwhile, CBD has been deemed effective at treating anxiety with none of the extreme sedation caused by many other medications.

Nausea and Appetite Problems

Vomiting and an unwillingness to eat can severely impact a pet’s health, causing dehydration and weight loss in a matter of days. Many of the ingredients found in cannabis can help ease nausea, stop vomiting, and even stimulate a pet’s appetite. THC is well-known for causing “the munchies” when consumed, but researchers have found that CBD also calms nausea and stimulates appetite – and it’s a much safer option for owners hoping to try medical cannabis for pets.

Seizures

CBD has proven to be a wonderful epilepsy treatment in humans. One pharmaceutical company even licensed a cannabidiol-based drug to be used for people with rare and severe forms of epilepsy. This degree of success led researchers to wonder if this type of treatment could also work in pets.

While much of the evidence may be anecdotal at this point (many pet owners say they’ve had success using CBD to reduce seizures in their epileptic pets), there is an ongoing study to determine its effectiveness. In 2017, the American Kennel Club Canine Health Foundation launched a study into CBD treatment for dogs with drug-resistant epilepsy. Researchers are hopeful that it will have promising results that will expand treatment options for dogs who suffer from debilitating seizures.

Types of Medical Cannabis for Pets

When many people first start learning about medical cannabis for pets, they often mistakenly assume that this only refers to marijuana that causes a high. In reality, “cannabis” refers to strains of marijuana that contain psychoactive THC as well as hemp, a type of cannabis plant that contains insignificant amounts of THC but large percentages of CBD. Understanding the differences between the various types of medical cannabis for pets can help owners choose the best treatment, as well as keep their pets safe.

Marijuana

Medical marijuana for pets was first tested out by people who tried giving their pets small amounts of human medical or recreational marijuana to help treat various ailments. From pain to anxiety and beyond, many pet owners say that marijuana helped their pets lead happy lives or stay more comfortable during the last days and weeks of a terminal illness.

Because it contains THC, giving marijuana to pets – and especially small animals – is potentially dangerous. Because of the risk of THC toxicity, most experts recommend THC-free cannabis solutions such as CBD oils and hemp products.

CBD Products

CBD is a non-psychoactive cannabinoid that’s effective at treating anxiety, pain, inflammation, nausea, low appetite, and many other conditions. CBD can be derived from high-CBD, low-THC strains of marijuana or from hemp (which contains insignificant amounts of THC). Unlike THC, CBD is not toxic to pets.

In recent years, the pet industry has seen an explosion in the number of CBD products that are made especially for animals. Owners who wish to give CBD to their pets can find it in oils, CBD-infused treats, and more.

Hemp Products

Hemp-infused products are another popular way for people to incorporate medical cannabis into their pets’ health regimens. While hemp plants have nearly zero THC (cannabis must have 0.3 percent or less THC to be legally considered hemp), it’s also naturally high in CBD.

How much CBD hemp products have depend on how they’re processed. The two most popular kids are:

Hemp extract: Naturally high in CBD, hemp extract is essentially CBD oil that’s extracted from hemp (rather than from low-THC strains of marijuana). Extracted from the whole plant, it’s an excellent option for pet owners who wish to treat specific ailments with a CBD remedy.

Hemp oil: Also known as hemp seed oil, this product is cold-pressed from hemp seeds. Unlike hemp extract, hemp oil is not high in CBD. It is high in other nutrients such as protein, vitamin E, and omega-3 fatty acids, making it a wonderful dietary supplement for pets.


Cannabis and Dogs

Many veterinarians are eager for more research and the ability to guide their clients through using medical cannabis for dogs. This is so much the case that the American Animal Hospital Association published a report titled High Time for Cannabis Research: Researchers Aim to Determine the Efficacy and Safety of Cannabis in Dogs. It details some of the ongoing studies and details the difficulties vets experience when their hands are tied in regards to cannabis for animals.

The industry is so new that exact numbers on how many people use medical cannabis for their dogs isn’t available. One need only peruse the internet to find numerous stories of owners who have had success after using it to treat painful conditions such as inflammation and pain due to arthritis and hip dysplasia, separation anxiety and fear of thunderstorms or fireworks, nausea and low appetite, as well as allergies and skin conditions.

The increase in popularity both in medical marijuana for animals and in legal marijuana for humans has created a growing concern, however: marijuana toxicity in pets.

Marijuana Toxicity in Dogs

One of the reasons many dog owners steer clear of cannabis products that contain THC is because THC can be toxic to dogs. Some people say they’ve successfully treated various conditions in their dog with low doses of THC, but dosing must be carefully controlled or toxicity can result.

Most often, marijuana toxicity occurs when a dog finds and ingests their owner’s marijuana. This can happen much more easily with dogs than with cats and smaller animals because dogs are willing and able to eat a wider variety of THC-containing items, from edible treats, THC-infused butters/cooking oils, and marijuana flower to BHO concentrates and vaping cartridges. In fact, according to the US Animal Poison Control Center, 96 percent of marijuana intoxication cases are dogs.

Symptoms of marijuana intoxication in dogs include:

  • Glassy eyes
  • Lack of coordination
  • Lethargy
  • Sedation
  • Whining or crying
  • Agitation
  • Vomiting
  • Tremors
  • Trouble regulating body temperature
  • Seizures
  • Coma

In most cases, a dog that consumes marijuana will simply be uncomfortable for a while. If symptoms are severe, however, veterinary care is necessary to keep the dog contained and safe, hydrated, and to monitor their body temperature and vital signs. In cases where a dog has consumed a marijuana edible that’s made from chocolate, the situation is even more dangerous, as chocolate is highly toxic to dogs.

• Related Page: Cannabis and Dogs


Cannabis and Cats

Although cats can suffer from many of the same ailments as dogs, they also frequently have fewer treatment options available to them, causing many owners to research medical cannabis for cats. Like dogs, cannabis can be used to treat painful conditions such as arthritis and inflammation. It’s also effective at treating anxiety in cats; something that cat owners find especially helpful because untreated anxiety and stress can cause cats to develop conditions such as  urinary crystals and loss of appetite.

Cannabis-based products such as hemp seed oil are also useful for painful and irritating skin conditions. Many people find these treatments more useful than traditional topical sprays and ointments that cats often lick off while bathing. Although studies on CBD treatment for seizures have only been conducted on dogs thus far, many people say their epileptic cats have found relief through the use of CBD products. Other cat medical conditions that people have used cannabis products to treat include pancreatitis and cancer, but success achieved through such treatments is anecdotal until studies have confirmed their effectiveness.

Marijuana Toxicity in Cats

Although it’s not as common as it is in dogs, marijuana toxicity in cats is on the rise. This is partially due to misguided assumptions that exposing a cat to marijuana is just as harmless as giving them catnip – another herb that’s responsible for creating a kitty high. While catnip does appear to affect a cat in the same way that marijuana does, catnip is safe and nontoxic while THC consumption can be uncomfortable and even deadly to a cat.

Because most cats don’t eat random objects at the same rate dogs do, they’re much less likely to ingest marijuana. If they do, it’s typically by chewing on the leaves of a plant or licking cannabis-infused cooking oil or cannabutter that’s been left out.

Symptoms of marijuana intoxication in cats are similar to dogs, with difficulty walking, glazed eyes, and lethargy alternating with agitation being some of the main factors a cat owner will notice. Because of a cat’s small size, they are much more sensitive to THC than humans. While a human may enjoy the experience of a marijuana high, the sensation can be much more intense and frightening to a cat. Nausea and vomiting, a drop in heart rate or body temperature, and the risk of seizures make THC ingestion very dangerous for a cat. If it occurs, owners should seek veterinary assistance.

• Related Page: Cannabis and Cats


Cannabis for Other Animals

Medical cannabis for pets extends beyond just dogs and cats. Pet owners are also discovering the benefit of medical marijuana, CBD, and hemp for other kinds of animals. Horse owners have reported reduced pain and improved health after using medical cannabis on horses who have conditions such as degenerative ligament disease. Kentucky Equine Research reports that hemp oil can be used in horses to reduce inflammation, improve allergies and skin conditions, and more. Many people have also had success using CBD to treat stress and low appetite in their horses.

The use of this type of natural treatment is spreading far beyond everyday pets and into exotic animals, as well. A safari park in northern Arizona uses CBD to treat anxiety, cancer, and seizures in the animals under their care. Those animals include a goat, a python, and lion, and a tiger.

Marijuana Toxicity in Other Pets

While marijuana toxicity is most common in dogs and cats, owners of other types of pets must also use caution – both when smoking marijuana in the same room as their animals and when leaving edibles and other types of marijuana where their pets might eat it. Birds, for example, have very sensitive respiratory systems and exposure to any sort of secondhand smoke can cause irritation and infections. Although it hasn’t been studied, there’s also a likelihood that birds have a great deal of sensitivity to THC (researchers did find that birds get drunk on alcohol in similar way to humans). In addition to being cautious with secondhand smoke, bird owners also have to ensure that their winged friends don’t get the opportunity to sample THC-infused edibles.

Reptiles are also susceptible to marijuana intoxication; there is a report of three iguanas becoming seriously ill after consuming cannabis. Such incidents provide an important reminder for all animal owners to be cautious when it comes to marijuana and pets.


Cannabis and Pets: Understanding the Risks and Rewards

Any sort of cannabis consumption requires a certain level of education and responsibility, and this also applies to cannabis and pets. Experts advise pet owners to communicate clearly with their doctors before starting any regimen of medical marijuana for pets; this will help ensure that any positive results or adverse reactions are closely monitored. Education about accidental marijuana consumption and THC toxicity in pets will also help reduce the explosion in calls to pet poison control centers.

With a cannabis industry that’s showing no signs of slowing down, people are obtaining new legal access to marijuana for both recreational and medical purposes. By learning about cannabis and pets, they can treat their animals’ health problems naturally and effectively – as well as keep them safe from the frightening effects of an unintentional THC overdose.


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