Any animal with a backbone (classified as a chordate) has an endocannabinoid system. The Kingdom of Chordata includes amphibians, reptiles, birds, fish, and mammals, including house pets. Many animal-owners treat their beloved pets like family members. When a dog or a cat gets sick and conventional options don’t work, people seek alternatives. In the realm of natural healing, cannabis for animals seems like a logical botanical pathway to explore.
When it comes to CBD, or cannabis in general, little research has been done on cats and dogs. Are cannabis preparations safe for use in animals? Does marijuana affect pets the same way as humans? Many pet-owners are looking for something to support their animal’s health, but there is little quality control with respect to the numerous pet-focused CBD products that are available in the medical marijuana sector and the hemp CBD grey market. And there aren’t many trusted, educated individuals who can provide professional guidance on cannabinoid therapies for pets.
To help pet-owners become better informed about the use of cannabis for their four-legged companions, Sarah Russo of Project CBD spoke with Gary Richter, DVM, an integrative medicine veterinarian based in Oakland, California. Richter considers cannabis to be part of a holistic approach to animal medicine. Due to marijuana’s proscribed Schedule I status, veterinarians are not allowed to write letters of recommendation for their clients or tell them where to obtain cannabis medicine. But Richter is able to speak about the benefits of CBD and cannabis therapeutics for pets.
Project CBD: Can you tell us about your work? Based on what you’ve seen in your practice, what types of conditions may cannabis medicine alleviate in pets?
Richter: My practice applies western, complementary, and alternative approaches. That could include acupuncture, chiropractic, Chinese and western herbs, nutritional supplementation, and more. Animals can benefit from medical cannabis for many of the same reasons it helps people — for pain, seizure control, gastrointestinal disorders, anxiety-related issues. We‘ve also seen positive results with cancer.
Project CBD: Why is there a lack of research studies on cannabis in dogs and cats? What areas of cannabinoid medicine in animals would you like to see investigated more deeply?
Richter: I think ultimately the reason for the lack of therapeutic-oriented research is because cannabis is federally illegal and there’s no funding. Generally, it’s pharmaceutical companies that are putting most of the money into medical research. Once there’s a legal pathway and money to be made in veterinary products, that research will happen. I would like to see more general research on the use of cannabis in animals, focusing on some of the ailments that it seems be the most effective for — especially gastrointestinal issues, pain, and inflammation. Many veterinary patients see dramatic effects with cannabis for these ailments. Cancer studies would be a much longer road and more challenging to put together.
Project CBD: What is your response when veterinarians say: “There isn’t enough scientific data to show cannabis is safe and effective for treating animals.”
Richter: In a perfect world, we would benefit from more scientific information. However, the case reports and anecdotal evidence about the efficacy of cannabis medicine are already overwhelming. In veterinary medicine, practitioners typically have no problem using off-label medications — those not explicitly approved for use in dogs or cats. But mention medical cannabis, which has a mountain of evidence for efficacy in humans, and they suddenly say, “You can’t do that, there’s been no research on dogs!” It’s disingenuous.
Project CBD: Is there a difference between the endocannabinoid system in a dog or a cat as compared to a human?
Richter: In the big picture, they’re very similar. One striking difference is there appears to be a greater concentration of cannabinoid receptors in the dog’s brain than there are in most other animals. This is significant because it makes dogs more susceptible to THC overdose, potentially giving them a certain amount of neurologic impairment in the short-term. This phenomenon is known as static ataxia. Otherwise, when cannabis medicine is used effectively, their endocannabinoid system will act in the same way it would for a human.
Project CBD: Is THC combined with CBD beneficial for pets? If so, what CBD:THC ratios do you suggest for your clients?
Richter: It depends on both the condition that’s being treated as well as the individual animal. Many people in the cannabis community have heard about the entourage effect. The ratio of THC to CBD is an important part of that. There are conditions that respond better to medicine with a certain amount of THC in it. The ratios that I have used include hemp-based CBD with very little THC, as well as CBD-rich marijuana with a 20:1 CBD:THC ratio and THC-dominant medicine with little CBD. The research suggests that patients with cancer and chronic pain benefit from products that have CBD and THC, rather than CBD alone. It really depends.
Project CBD: Do you see animals coming into the veterinary hospital after having too much THC? How much of a problem is that?
Richter: Obviously whenever we’re talking about THC and pets, dosing becomes very important. At no point is the goal for the pet to get stoned. If that happens, then it means they’ve gotten too much. The aim is to give them enough cannabis to be effective, but not so much that they’re going to be negatively compromised. It is extremely uncommon to see an animal show negative signs when they have been properly dosed with cannabis as medicine. The worst effect would be drowsiness. If that’s that case, the owner may have to decrease the dose. It’s not uncommon for a dog, or sometimes a cat, to show up at a veterinary hospital having eaten a cannabis-infused edible that belonged to the owner. The good news is that cannabis toxicity is nonfatal and does not cause long-term effects. However, those animals that get into their owner's stash may require immediate medical care. I have seen and heard of a couple of cases where pets did not survive.
Project CBD: But you just said that cannabis toxicity in nonfatal. You’ve seen cases where an animal ate too much cannabis and actually died?
Richter: One case that I have personally seen was a dog that got into a bunch of cannabis edibles and the owner didn’t bring his dog to the veterinarian immediately. They called us the following day. Unfortunately, the dog had vomited and aspirated while at home, his lungs filled with fluid, and he wound up dying from a systemic infection related to that. To be honest, if this dog had received medical treatment the day he ate cannabis, he almost certainly would have been fine. It was only because the owner waited, and by that time it was too late. It was very sad. But this type of event is really quite rare.
Project CBD: What’s your preferred way to administer cannabis medicine to animals?
Richter: I prefer a liquid preparation, usually an oil. With liquids, it’s very easy to adjust the dosage. If you’re giving something like a pill or an edible, it can be difficult to figure out how to titrate the right amount. Furthermore, there’s every reason to believe that CBD and THC are going to be partially absorbed directly into the bloodstream through the tissues of the mouth, sublingually. If we put a liquid in an animal’s mouth, some of the medication will be absorbed directly and has a chance to be more effective.
Project CBD: A lot of people say they want to start giving cannabis or CBD medicine to their pet, but they’re not quite sure about the right dose. Is there a good way to calculate the ideal amount for your animal?
Richter: There’s a dosing range that you could start at. It’s best to begin at the low end. Every few days, slowly increase the dose. If you’ve achieved the desired effect for whatever is being treated, then you’re probably done. Just like people, animals will develop a tolerance for the psychoactive effects of the THC. Over time they will be able to take more medicine without any demonstrable side effects. Medical cannabis is not the answer for all pets. Some animals do better on it than others, just like people.
Project CBD: In general, how knowledgeable are veterinarians about cannabis therapeutics?
Richter: This is a big problem — the lack of education. The California Veterinary Medical Board is very much against the use of medical cannabis for pets. They don’t want veterinarians speaking with pet owners about it at all, except to say that it is bad and not to use it.
Project CBD: What is the legal status of CBD as a medicine for animals?
Richter: Cannabis is federally illegal across the board, including CBD from hemp. Even in California, a trailblazing medical marijuana state, as a veterinarian I’m not able to provide people with a medical marijuana recommendation for their pet. Nor am I able to provide them with cannabis products. But I can talk with people about how medical cannabis might benefit their animals. Unless something dramatic changes on the legal front, there’s still going to be access problems for people looking to get medicinal cannabis for their pets.
Project CBD: Any words of advice for someone who wants to treat their pet with cannabis or CBD?
Richter: If at all possible talk to a veterinarian. Cannabis is medicine and its dosing should be carefully calculated. It’s important to know the concentration of THC and CBD in milligrams for one’s pet. Once you have that information, you can look for a product that suits your pet's needs. When in doubt, err on the side of under-dosing because you can always slowly increase the dose and monitor the effect. And make sure the medicine is free of mold, pesticides, and other contaminants.
Project CBD: There are many hemp-based CBD products on the market for pets. How do you feel about the quality of these products in general? What are your thoughts about hemp-derived CBD?
Richter: I don’t want to disparage hemp-based CBD products because I think they do have a positive medical effect. Many people start with hemp products because of their relative ease of accessibility. But in many cases, we don’t know the source of the CBD in these products. I recommend that people do their due diligence as they should with any vitamin or supplement. Call the company and ask where the product is coming from and how it’s being produced. There is no government oversight to make sure that these companies are selling authentic and safe products. A pet owner’s only other option is to get a card and go to a medical marijuana dispensary if they want something that may be more effective than hemp-derived CBD. Ideally, you would look for a product that is organic and produced locally. You want to know how the CBD was extracted and the full spectrum of cannabinoids that are present.
Project CBD: Are there any guidelines or recommendations you have for people who want to make their own cannabis preparations for their pets?
Richter: That’s tricky. You won’t know the concentration of cannabinoids in what you make at home, unless you have it analyzed. If you do use your own preparation, start with extremely minute dosing and slowly work your way up. You’d much rather under-dose than overdose.
Project CBD: Sometimes people who don’t have medical complaints like to take cannabis as preventative medicine to maintain good health and well-being. Would you recommend something like that for an animal?
Richter: That’s an excellent question I have often asked myself. The purpose of the endocannabinoid system is to maintain homeostasis within the body. It’s logical to consider using cannabis as preventative medicine much in the same way that a person would take a multivitamin. If that’s the case, I would consider keeping the dosage toward the very low end. We need to see more research on the use of cannabis as preventative medicine in people as well as animals.
Project CBD: Are there any resources for people to educate themselves about cannabis medicine for pets or to find a cannabis friendly veterinarian in their area?
Richter: Firstly, I would say talk to your regular veterinarian about cannabis. Even if they can’t give you the information, they may know someone in the area that can. Additionally, there is a national organization called the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association (AHVMA). It isn’t a given that a member of the AHVMA incorporates medical cannabis into their practice, but most people who are open to it are also holistically minded. That would be a good place to find a veterinarian and to begin a conversation. For resources, a colleague of mine and I taught an online course for Greenflower Media. The class provides a comprehensive description of how medical cannabis works in pets, ways to dose, and how to find a good product. And I have a book coming out later this year. It’s called Integrative Health Care for Dogs and Cats. It has a whole section on medical cannabis, with dosing guidelines. A colleague of mine, Rob Silver, released a book last year called Medical Marijuana and Your Pet.
Project CBD: Thank you for your time and information.
Take-Home Message: If you decide to give your pet cannabis medicine, get informed. The medicine you give your animal should have the same standards for anything you would put in your own body. Make sure the product is safe and tested for cannabinoid content, quality, and is free from any contaminants or additives. Seek guidance from a vet, if at all possible. Start your furry friend off on a low dose of cannabis medicine. And monitor the effects that cannabis has on their experience because, as George Eliot wrote, “Animals are such agreeable friends ― they ask no questions, they pass no criticisms.” — Project CBD
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Photo credit: 3 Million Dogs, Smiles for All, Showisgoto