Marijuana (or cannabis) refers to the dried parts of the Cannabis plant. Cannabis has been used since 500 BC as an herbal medicine, and for products such as rope, textiles, and paper. Today, cannabis is primarily used for medicinal or recreational purposes. Cannabis can be smoked like a cigarette, inhaled via vaporizers, or ingested via food and drink.
Cannabis contains more than 100 different chemicals (or compounds) called cannabinoids. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the cannabinoid that has the most psychoactive effects. It is also the compound responsible for some of cannabis’ medicinal uses, such as treating nausea and improving appetite in cancer patients. Other compounds, such as cannabidiol (CBD), have shown promise for medicinal use and do not have psychoactive effects.
“The increased accessibility to the drug has led to an increase in accidental exposure in pets”
While cannabis use is not new, its use for recreational purposes is more recent. In the 1970s, cannabis was criminalized in the US when it was labeled a Schedule 1 (Class I) drug. In the 1990s, individual states began legalizing cannabis for medicinal use, and more recently, 9 states have legalized it for recreational use. Legalization for recreational use in Canada occurred in 2018. As with any other medication, the increased accessibility to the drug has led to an increase in accidental exposure in pets.
A LITTLE BIT OF HISTORY
A few thousand years ago, mankind was already cultivating cannabis for different purposes. Our ancestors would make the most of every part of the plant : the flowers and the leaves were used as a medicine, the stems and stalks as a fiber and the seeds as a source of protein.
There weren’t many more concerns reported about this plant before the 19th century. It started to be described as a poison during the early 20th century and became illegal pretty much everywhere after that.
Minds are starting to open up again today regarding this fascinating plant. A few states legalized cannabis in the last years and all Canada last october.
Unintended THC intoxication
The key thing to remember is that they don’t know what’s happening to them and the effects can be very frightening.
While nobody, we certainly hope, is hotboxing Fido these days, it is true that pets—which often have more sophisticated and sensitive olfactory systems than our own—can be affected by the cannabis their owners use. In fact, dogs have far more cannabinoid receptors than humans and pets in general usually weigh much less than us, so intoxication can happen with even very small amounts of THC.
Most cases of pet intoxication come from curious animals finding edibles or flowers and ingesting them. That means an automatic trip to the vet. Don’t be shy about reporting what happened.
Second-hand smoke, of course, is also a problem; but so is what’s known as third-hand smoke, which is defined as smoke that has penetrated household surfaces like furniture and clothes. Cats and certain breeds of short-snouted dogs are particularly sensitive to third-hand smoke.
Vaporizers can take away some of the hazards associated with smoking, but the active ingredients in cannabis can still affect pets.
Symptoms of THC intoxication in pets include disorientation, lack of coordination, drooling, excess urination, vomiting, reduced heart rate, hyperactivity and pupil dilation. A trip to the vet will usually result in an IV to replace fluids, anti-nauseants to prevent vomiting and activated charcoal to clean the digestive system.
The important thing for recovery is that the pet be kept in a safe, ideally welcoming, place. Just as animals don’t know how they got high, they also don’t know that it will ever end, so comforting them until it passes is necessary.
How do cats and dogs become intoxicated?
Cats and dogs can become intoxicated by cannabis in various ways; by inhaling second-hand smoke, eating edibles (baked goods, candies, chocolate bars, and chips containing cannabis), or ingesting cannabis directly (in any form). Most exposures are accidental when curious pets discover access to the drug or when they are present in the same room with a person smoking cannabis. Dogs have more cannabinoid receptors in their brains, which means the effects of cannabis are more dramatic and potentially more toxic when compared to humans. A small amount of cannabis is all it takes to cause toxicity in cats and dogs.
“Accurate and complete information is imperative to treating the patient successfully.”
Regardless of the method of exposure, accurate and complete information is imperative to treating the patient successfully. For example, ingestion of a ‘pot brownie’ needs different treatment than inhalation, because eating the brownie requires treatment for cannabis and chocolate toxicity, whereas inhalation may require additional treatment for respiratory irritation.
WHAT IF MY DOG OR CAT ATE WEED?
What does a stoned dog or cat looks like? It might surprise you. I am sure we all have in mind the same image of a smiling dog with his eyes half closed. But reality is quite different.
SYMPTOMS IN DOGS :
- Lethargy, somnolence
- Lack of coordination or voluntary movements
- Urinary incontinence
SYMPTOMS IN CATS :
- Increased locomotor activity (spontaneous jumping behaviour)
- Swaying from side to side
Any animal experiencing these symptoms should be seen immediately by a veterinarian, especially if you have doubts or know these could be related to the consumption of cannabis. If you know your dog or cat ate weed, share the information to the veterinary team so they can help your companion better and faster.
Medical Marijuana for Dogs
If your pet has a physical issue (pain, anxiety, etc.) you may be tempted to give them marijuana to ease symptoms, especially if your dog has a chronic, debilitating, and/or terminal illness. Just because you think it will help, that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. You may end up doing more harm than good.
There is much research still to be done into the therapeutic and medicinal use of marijuana in general, and research for veterinary use has even further to go. Human medical use of medical marijuana has been shown to be very therapeutic for certain health conditions, such as epilepsy, arthritis, anxiety, cancer, and more. Cannabidiol, or CBD, is a product of cannabis without the tetrahydrocannabinol (the THC is what gets one “high”). CBD has shown effectiveness for many health issues and has even been medically administered to children in states where it is legal. But evidence of its effectiveness in pets is basically just anecdotal at this time.
It’s also important to understand that veterinarians are not legally allowed to prescribe any form or derivation of marijuana because it is still a DEA schedule 1 drug (and therefore is illegal on a federal level regardless of the state). In addition, there is not enough evidence or available testing to determine safe and therapeutic levels of CBD and/or THC in dogs.
Fortunately, this is a quickly evolving area of research. As laws, perceptions, and science evolve, there’s a good chance we will discover safe and effective ways to use medical marijuana in pets. In the meantime: don’t risk it. Keep marijuana in any form away from your dog unless your veterinarian advises you otherwise.