Updated on January 7, 2019.
Medical content reviewed by Dr. Joseph Rosado, MD, M.B.A, Chief Medical Officer
We love our pets. We always want to give them the utmost care when they’re in good health, and especially when they’re sick. That’s why many of us are turning to medical marijuana for our pets when they are suffering or have a certain medical condition pot can help.
Medical marijuana has been legalized in many states for human use. As pot’s therapeutic value for humans is becoming more widely known, many people are finding that the plant has substantial therapeutic benefits for their animals, too. According to Daily Treat and a 2016 survey conducted by Colorado State University, more than 64 percent of dog owners felt that pot-based products helped their dogs either moderately or greatly.
Why use cannabis for animals? To put it in simple terms, people who have experimented with the medicine for their pets say it works. In fact, there are many anecdotal stories about the efficacy of pot for pets, and we’ll cover some of those later. What’s very exciting is that these aren’t isolated incidents. People all over the U.S. are discovering that medical marijuana is giving their ailing and elderly pets an improved quality of life.
With pot dog treats becoming the newest trend in the half-billion dollar U.S. animal supplement market, you may be wondering what medical marijuana for pets actually is. Although it’s gaining in popularity, cannabis supplements for pets is a relatively new area in terms of research.
Similar to medical cannabis for humans, there are a variety of options when it comes to treating your pet. You can medicate them via treats, capsules, topicals and tinctures, and many people find success with giving their pets medical marijuana orally.
Concerned owners give their pets marijuana products in the forms of:
Tinctures (liquid extracts)
And other edibles
These products don’t get your pet stoned. Instead, they are natural anti-inflammatories and pain relievers.
It’s true that the plant world has provided humankind with some of our most widely used and trusted drugs. Morphine and codeine come from the poppy plant. Antimalarial quinine is derived from the quinine tree, and the heart drug known as digitalis comes from the purple foxglove plant.
Both pot and hemp are derived from the Cannabis sativa plant, while strains come from the Cannabis indica plant. The issue with pot, though, is that it has been the subject of many years’ worth of demonization. Because of this, there are many barriers in the way of research, particularly for veterinary applications.
Pet Conditions That Can Be Treated With Medical Marijuana
What conditions can be treated with medical marijuana for pets? Just like in humans, marijuana for pets is used to treat a wide variety of acute and chronic health problems. These include:
Cerebral ischemia (reduced blood and oxygen supply to the brain)
Myocardial ischemia (reduced blood and oxygen supply to the heart)
Cancer pain and treatment
Inflammatory bowel disease
Some pet owners have also found that medical pot is useful for treating the following acute problems:
Post-operative care to reduce stiffness, pain and swelling
Even if your pet is taking regular drugs for any of the above conditions, using pet marijuana could make it possible for lower doses of those drugs to be taken. Also, medical pot for pets doesn’t seem to have the side effects that are associated with many conventional medications.
Cannabis for Treating Pet Seizures
Nowadays, we know a lot about how medical marijuana helps millions of people suffering from all manner of acute and chronic conditions. For people who suffer from seizures in particular, concentrates and strains that are high in CBD are often used to manage and reduce the instances of these seizures occurring.
Interestingly, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that pets with seizure disorders benefit from high CBD medical marijuana treatment, too. Research suggests that around one to five percent of all dogs are at risk of suffering from idiopathic or symptomatic seizures. Idiopathic epilepsy may be genetic and has no underlying cause. Symptomatic seizures on the other hand are generally caused by abnormalities like lead poisoning, metabolic health problems, head trauma and encephalitis.
Dog breeds that are prone to symptomatic seizures include:
English springer spaniels
Others with a high incidence of seizure disorders include:
American cocker spaniels
Wirehaired fox terriers
Welsh springer spaniels
Cavalier King Charles spaniels
Often, commonly prescribed medications come with serious side effects including liver damage. This is why more and more owners are turning to medical marijuana therapy to help their pets.
The Endocannabinoid System in Mammals
The endocannabinoid system in humans and mammals is named after the marijuana plant Cannabis sativa. Consisting of cannabinoids and cannabinoid receptors, it is a complex communication system in the body and brain that impacts many functions, such as feelings, movements and reactions. It also plays an important role in pain and inflammation. As part of the endocannabinoid system, cannabinoid receptors are involved in a number of physiological processes, including pain sensation, memory and appetite.
The reason your body and those of your pets can so easily process cannabis is related to the endocannabinoid system. Endocannabinoids and their receptors are located throughout the body: in the organs, immune system, glands, connective tissues and the brain. The endocannabinoid system provides an essential bridge between the body and mind.
Dr. Ralph Mechoulam found out about two main receptors:
Cannabidiol 1 (CB1)
Cannabidiol 2 (CB2)
They are keyed to your naturally occurring endocannabinoids as well as to plant-based phytocannabinoids. These include THC and CBD.
The bodies of mammals naturally produce endocannabinoids. They have a narcotic-like effect, similar to how we produce endorphins. Synthetic man-made cannabinoids also work within receptor sites, but they don’t work as well as those that are naturally-occurring.
Where in the Body Are CB1 Receptors Found?
CB1 receptors are primarily found within the brain, although they are also present within female and male reproductive organs. THC is keyed to the CB1 receptor.
Therapeutically speaking, the most important effect is that it moderates and modulates pain perception. This means pain intensity is reduced when THC is within the CB1 site. Because of this, medical marijuana that’s rich in THC works so well for animals in pain.
Where in the Body Are CB2 Receptors Found?
Primarily located within the immune system, the highest number of CB2 receptors are found within the spleen. There is evidence to suggest that there could also be receptors within the brain’s basal ganglia, or nerve bundles. This is an area that requires much more research. It’s hoped that as society’s attitudes toward medical pot change, and as governments and individuals alike wake up to its positive medical effects, significantly more research will be done.
CB2 receptors take up anti-inflammatory CBD. It’s hoped that CB2’s immune-boosting and anti-spasmodic effects will be better understood when more research is carried out.
The important thing to understand about the endocannabinoid system in mammals is this: Just the fact that mammals have a physical system that produces cannabinoids and is designed to accept them points to cannabis as a medicine being a sensible and natural choice for our pets. From the anti-inflammatory and anti-spasmodic effects of CBD to the pain-killing properties of THC, there is so much potential — and medical science is only just beginning to scratch the surface.
How and Why Medical Cannabis for Pets Works
There are many different chemicals within the cannabis plant. These include, CBD, terpenoids, flavonoids, THC and phytocannabinoids.
Cannabinoids activate the specific receptors throughout the body’s endocannabinoid system to produce pharmacologic effects in the immune system and central nervous system. In the same way as humans, animals can become deficient in endocannabinoids. This is where marijuana medicines can help. You should always begin by giving your pet the smallest dose possible. Gradually work your way up until you find the smallest yet most effective dose that works for your pet.
You understandably want your pet to be out of pain quickly. As with many medications for many conditions, you may need to be patient to see results. When using veterinary marijuana CBD for pets, your pet might feel some pain relief within a few hours of being given a dose of pot. However, other symptoms like inflammation and tenderness may take a few days to improve.
Evidence in humans has shown that cannabinoids can help with pain, seizures, tumors, muscle spasms, skin conditions, aggression, appetite stimulation, anxiety, neurological disorders and have anti-inflammatory properties.
Keep in mind, though, that even in states where cannabis is legal, vets currently don’t have the power to prescribe pot for pets. Furthermore, the American Veterinary Medical Association is yet to take an official stance.
Cats have been successfully treated with medical marijuana too. The New York Times recently ran a story on a cat with arthritis. ‘Little Kitty’ was so unwell and sore that she spent the majority of each day hiding in a closet on a bed of blankets. Her owner got herself a medical marijuana card and bought some edible cannabis oils that soon made Little Kitty feel more like her old self again.
There are countless success stories on treating pets with pot being reported all over the world. Even veterinary professionals and workers are treating their pets with marijuana-derived medications. California-based veterinary specialist and technician Liz Hughston, a member of the International Veterinary Academy of Pain Management, used pot-infused treats to treat her dog who was suffering from a firework phobia. Anyone who has ever seen a dog that’s terrified of these loud bangs and flashes will understand just how intensely fearful and inconsolable they can be.
However, after eating the marijuana-infused treats, her Chihuahua-Dachshund mix was back to his usual self. Although research into how cannabis affects dogs is very much is in its infancy, these results and others like them are very exciting.
Safety of Medical Marijuana for Pets
Studies on dogs in the 1970s found that they have the highest number of THC receptors in their brains of any animal species, including humans. Many of these receptors are within the brain area that governs coordination. So, if a dog gets too much THC, he’ll initially be excited, then disoriented. He may also drool, urinate and rock backward and forward being unable to move forward. Sometimes dogs with a lot of THC in their system simply fall over, a condition known as static ataxia. For this reason, cannabis strains containing high levels of THC should never be used on your dog.
According to the FDA, although the agency is aware of instances where pets have consumed pot, they have not directly received any reports indicating any adverse effects on these animals. It’s hoped that in the future, pot for pets will be studied in the way the human variety has begun to be.
Are There Any Studies Into Medical Pot for Pets?
Veterinarians are only just beginning to find out about the effects of pot on animals. Recently the California Medical Association held a conference where one of the themes was pot. Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine’s Dawn Boothe gave a presentation on the topic, admitting that there’s a lot still to find out about the drug.
Boothe’s department recently submitted a grant application to the nonprofit Morris Animal Foundation. This Foundation provides funding for scientific studies for animals and to conduct research on cannabinoids and dogs.
Additionally, Peak Pharmaceuticals has partnered with a vet hospital to conduct studies into dogs taking cannabinoids if they have epilepsy. The company is also preparing to study the effects of cannabinoids on horses with anxiety and joint pain.
It’s hoped that in time, this and other research will shed some light on the effectiveness of pot for treating pets. It should also enable the industry to set official guidelines on dosage and quality.
Oils. When you’re working with commercially produced oil, the advice from Dogs Naturally Magazine is to start with the lowest dosage possible. For instance, in dogs, this should be one drop of oil per 10 lbs. of their body weight daily. After approximately one week, you can then try giving your pet one drop per ten lbs. of his body weight twice daily.
Tinctures. Pet tinctures are a cannabis extraction in liquid form. It can be placed directly in your pet’s mouth. Tinctures for pets can also be applied to their food or put on their treats. These typically come in various CBD-to-THC ratios, and they contain varying amounts of cannabinoids depending on the size of the pet.
Capsules. If you’ve bought medical pot capsules, begin with one quarter of the usual recommended dose, increasing this over time until you see it working. So long as there are no side effects, you can increase the dose every five days or so until your pet seems happier. Side effects to watch out for include hyperactivity, vomiting, hypersensitivity, disorientation or excessive sedation. If your pet displays any of these, stop treatment immediately. Once your pet is feeling better you can then resume treatment at a lower dose.
Treats. If you purchase marijuana treats for your pet, begin with a quarter cookie and work up from there. It’s imperative you never exceed the maximum recommended dose for your pet’s size.
The key to treating your pet successfully is to strike a fine balance where no side effects occur, but you’re seeing results. Remember that over time, you might need to up the dose a little to see results. It goes without saying that you should always keep any medicines out of the way of pets and inquisitive children.
Can I Talk to My Veterinarian About Cannabis?
You may be worried about asking your veterinarian’s opinion on giving cannabis to your pet. However, even if you live in a prohibition state, it’s fine to have a talk with your vet about their opinion on cannabis. Even if they know very little about treating your pet with cannabis, it’ll open a dialog and make more people aware of using medical marijuana as a treatment option.
Unsurprisingly, as marijuana is becoming more available, people are considering giving it to their pets to treat a wide range of medical problems. Therefore, it’s crucial that there are authoritative sources that can provide pet owners with the guidance they need.
Legality of Medical Marijuana for Pets
If you’re wondering about the legalities of administering medical pot to your cat or dog, don’t panic. So long as you hold a medical marijuana card, you can buy cannabis products for your pet.
It must also be noted that the FDA does not currently condone the use of medical pot for pets. However, the anecdotal evidence for their efficacy is astounding.
How to Get Medical Marijuana for Your Pet
If you’re interested in learning more and are looking to buy medical marijuana for your pet, the safest way is to search for a medical marijuana doctor or dispensary. You can then ask for advice on the best methods of delivery for your pet.
Although it’s likely that over the coming months and years, we’ll see medical marijuana for pets being more widely researched, used and discussed, the area is often mired in personal opinion and bias. The science needs to be the primary area of focus over the years ahead. Studies into the drug’s relationship with animals are long overdue.
With the state of Nevada possibly making medical pot for pets legal in the near future, the drug could potentially be a breakthrough drug in terms of treating pets with chronic and acute illnesses. Many pet owners view medical pot as an integral part of their animal’s treatment.
By transforming anecdotes and stories into hard clinical evidence, we can move forward from what we think and believe to what we actually know for certain. Take the next step and search for a marijuana doctor or dispensary today and see if medical pot can help your pet live a fuller, more active life.