Is it okay to give medical marijuana to pets? It’s a question that I get a lot in my email and social media inboxes. And to be honest, I first scoffed at the idea, assuming that these owners just wanted a reason to get their pets high.
But the idea isn’t so far-fetched. In fact, many veterinarians across the country are now recommending marijuana for pets to help treat various ailments. One company, the California-based VetCBD, estimates it now sells medical pot to as many as thousands of patients, who are, of course, pet owners. And there are other similar companies: Canna Companions and Canna-Pet in Washington state and Treatibles Kitchen in California.
Now, this does not mean you should rush out and get your dog high next time you see him limping or sick. These companies generally work with strains of pot that don’t get pets high — dogs, cats, and other animals simply don’t do well under those effects. The companies instead provide non-psychoactive versions of marijuana that contain all the other promising medical effects.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: You should under almost no circumstance get your pet stoned. Animals don’t know how to cope with the psychoactive effects of pot, so it’s almost certain that they’ll suffer instead of enjoy the experience. And they can suffer pretty bad consequences, including depression, seizures, vomiting, and comas. What’s worse, these issues can last for days, since pot can take longer to work through some bigger dogs and other animals.
“If you never heard of marijuana or alcohol and I gave you a [pot] brownie, you’d feel the effects of this without knowing why,” Tim Shu, a veterinarian and founder of VetCBD, said, drawing an analogy to what pets go through while high. “Being in the dark like that, it would freak you out.”
But the pot VetCBD and other companies provide to pets doesn’t get them high.
Vets use one of two marijuana products: either pure cannabidiol (CBD), which doesn’t produce a high but contains some medicinal effects, or high-CBD, low-THC marijuana, which emphasizes CBD for its medical properties but contains almost no THC, which is the compound that leads to a high.
The argument for pure CBD is that it produces many of the medicinal effects of marijuana without any risk of a high. It’s also more widely legal, accessible, and affordable, so more doctors and vets tend to use it.
The argument for using high-CBD, low-THC marijuana is rooted in what’s known as the “entourage effect”: how different compounds work together in marijuana to create a stronger effect. Since it’s unclear which of pot’s more than 500 active ingredients and 70 cannabinoids best compound one another, scientists aren’t yet able to pick specific ingredients they want from marijuana to make a very focused drug. So instead they’ve limited the psychoactive effect (by limiting the THC), emphasized the medical effects (by upping the CBD), and kept the other chemicals in pot so they can work together with the CBD. “These groups of cannabinoids work better together, even in low amounts,” Shu said.
Pets don’t smoke this, of course. The marijuana oil is instead directly fed to the pet, or it can be put in the pet’s food.
So why put your pet through all of this? The short answer: Medical marijuana can help where conventional medicines are failing.
Medical marijuana can help pets where conventional medicine falls short.
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The arguments for giving pets medical marijuana are very similar to those for giving it to humans: The conventional medications aren’t effective or have bad side effects, so medical marijuana, which produces many of the benefits of typical drugs without the side effects, is a good alternative. This is exactly why many people turn to marijuana and its compounds — whether it’s CBD; high-CBD, low-THC pot; or the traditional plant — for medical uses.
To date, the most comprehensive review of the research, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found medical marijuana can help treat chronic pain and muscle stiffness. Anecdotal evidence also suggests it can help treat nausea and loss of appetite, epilepsy and seizures, and anxiety. (The chronic pain finding is particularly promising, since it suggests marijuana can substitute opioid painkillers without the risk of deadly overdose and without as big a risk of addiction.)
Generally, pure CBD can treat some of these issues. But the full marijuana plant, which is low on THC and high on CBD for pets but can come in high-THC strains for humans, is much more potent.
The results are anecdotal, but they seem promising: VetCBD’s patients claim to have successfully treated their pets for arthritis, loss of appetite, nausea, and even noise and separation anxiety — all symptoms medical marijuana can treat in humans. The company’s website is filled with thankful testimonials. And pet owners have praised medical marijuana from other companies for helping their sick and elderly animals, as Alice Truong reported in Quartz in April.
“If you look at the original studies for CBD and other cannabinoids, they were all done in animals,” Shu said. “They took these animal models and extrapolated that to apply it to the human field. So what we’re doing is going back a step and bringing it back to the animals.”
According to Shu, pet owners claim they see all these benefits without the side effects they had with other drugs. For example, pets with a lot of anxiety are prescribed drugs similar to what humans get, like Xanax — but can get the same nasty side effects you see in humans, such as drowsiness, loss of balance, or irritability. Medical marijuana can substitute for anti-anxiety drugs without the negative effects in humans, and it seems like it can function the same way in pets, too.
Many pet owners, of course, are uncomfortable with giving their dogs and cats these kinds of drugs. But if the choice is having your dog freak out due to the noise from fireworks or giving that dog something that will relax him or temporarily knock him out, many pet owners prefer the latter, seeing it as more humane.
But getting these drugs isn’t an easy task, and it’s actually impossible (at least to do legally) in most states. That’s because medical marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, and prohibited in 27 states.
Federal prohibition makes it harder to get these medicines
Just like medical marijuana for humans, federal and state laws make it much harder to get pot even for medicinal uses, particularly for pets.
As it stands, many doctors and vets resort to hemp-based CBD, since it’s considered legal in more places and even sold on Amazon. But since this is based on the type of marijuana plant that’s meant to make paper and fibers, it doesn’t contain nearly as many active ingredients with medical benefits. “Marijuana was bred to have a lot of cannabinoids, a lot of resin, a lot of flower, so it can be consumed,” Shu said. “Hemp was bred so that it can have a lot of seed, a lot of stock, so it can be used for fiber.”
If patients want to use high-CBD, low-THC marijuana, it’s still technically illegal under federal law, but legal for human medical needs — although not necessarily pets — in 23 states, including California. But the federal ban means the drugs can’t be transported between states, so companies like VetCBD have to work entirely within their states to grow, cultivate, and test their products. If they want to operate in other states, they have to start a full operation there. (Imagine if Ford had to launch a car factory in every single state and country in which it’s active, instead of shipping the cars across the world. It would be enormously expensive and inefficient.)
The legal restrictions effectively make medical marijuana less accessible and more expensive. And it’s still entirely illegal in most states. That leaves this promising drug not only out of the hands of many human patients, but out of the paws of a lot of pet patients, too.