Thanks to a daily dose of medical cannabis, pets are finding relief from their physical ailments; a bulldog who spent two years either lying down or throwing up now plays like a puppy; a boxer’s skin cancer begins to disappear following topical applications of cannabis oil; a 12-year-old labrador-mix diagnosed with liver and lung cancer regains his appetite and becomes more himself after his owner gives him a cannabis tincture.
These aren’t isolated incidents, but rather, three in an ever-increasing narrative of companion animals and cannabis-assisted healing. These stories offer hope that the lives of aging and/or infirm dogs can be improved, perhaps even extended with cannabis.
Yet, veterinarians played little to no official role in these success stories. Why? Because cannabis is currently a Schedule I controlled substance: even if vets believe that medical marijuana could or would relieve a dog’s pain, nausea or seizures, their hands are tied.
Physicians in states and districts where cannabis is legal for human medical use are exempt from prosecution, but veterinarians don’t have the same protection.
Recommending cannabis for medicinal use exposes them to the loss of their license to practice. It’s a difficult place for a vet to have a remedy that has been shown to have very real benefits, but not be able to use it, or even mention it, without career-ending consequences.
Nonetheless, some have put their livelihoods at risk by challenging that prohibition, usually for the same reasons given by the late Doug Kramer, DVM, of Chatsworth, Calif., in a 2013 interview: compassion, and to prevent owners from accidentally overdosing their animals in well-intentioned efforts to relieve pain.
Not surprisingly, when people benefit from a particular treatment, they tend to share it with their ailing companion animals. And with medical marijuana they’re doing so in increasing numbers, acting on the belief that if it works for them, it can also work for their pet. In doing so, they’re not necessarily curing incurable conditions, but some are helping their animals enjoy daily life with a better appetite and less pain until age or disease ultimately catches up.
Varying Delivery Systems
California was the first state in the nation to legalize medical marijuana, and it now has the largest, most accessible medical marijuana market in the U.S., so it’s no surprise that many who are pushing the boundaries of its use with companion animals are based in the Golden State.
Constance Finley, founder of Constance Pure Botanical Extracts in Northern California, became involved in cannabis use with dogs when her 10-year-old service dog was diagnosed with hemangiosarcoma and given 6 weeks to 6 months to live.
Finley had been using cannabis oil herself to treat the effects of a debilitating autoimmune disease that began when she was in her mid-40s. The prescription medication she took almost killed her, she says. It was an experience that inspired her to set aside her long-held bias against cannabis and give it a try.
The oil provided both pain and symptom relief and Finley went on to study cannabis cultivation and the complicated laws around its use. She eventually developed proprietary blends of highly-concentrated oils from multiple strains of cannabis, extracted with organic, food-grade solvents.
So, when Finley’s much-loved dog was struggling with cancer, she says she dithered, then began giving the dog small amounts of cannabis oil, wiping it on her gums.
Within days, the dog started to eat and move around; after 3 weeks of treatment with the oil, the vet treating her could find no signs of the cancer. Unfortunately, Finley says, she didn’t completely understand how cannabis worked; she figured her dog was cured and stopped using the oil. Within 6 months, the cancer was back and ultimately claimed her dog’s life. However, the experience made her a believer in cannabis oil’s value for companion animals.
Owners who choose to treat their companion animals with medical marijuana generally give it to them in one of two ways: as an oil or as an edible. While edibles intended for human consumption usually contain THC, those for dogs and cats more commonly use CBD from industrial hemp, which has almost no THC.
Though to date, there’s been no dog-specific research on its medical use, Finley says, she’s confident that the oil has a place in the veterinary toolbox. In her work with human cannabis patients, Finley says she has yet to see a conflict between conventional medications and cannabis, although anyone using it with dogs should be aware of the dog’s entire medical history. She considers it critically important to work with and observe the dog in order to correctly titrate the dose and avoid hitting the dog’s system with too much THC too quickly.
She also said that the effectiveness of a dog’s individual endocannabinoid system, not the dog’s weight, is the determining factor for dosage amounts.
Robert J. Silver, DVM, and veterinary herbalist of Boulder, Colorado agrees. When it comes to dogs and medical marijuana, he says, “ The ratio of brain weight — and by extension, receptors — to body weight is not linear.”
Indeed, the nature of the canine brain drives the need for study and standardization of dosage protocols for dogs. In the mid-1970s, researchers found that concentrations of CB1 endocannabinoid receptors in the hindbrain and medulla is higher in dogs than it is in humans. This suggests that for compounds that include THC, dogs require less than people to get the desired effect.
In Oakland, Auntie Dolores has been making cannabis-infused edibles for California’s medical marijuana users since 2008. The company also makes Treatibles, a locally-manufactured product for dogs and cats.
The active ingredients are CBD, CBN (cannabinol) and CBG (cannabigerol) originating from full-plant hemp extract cultivated and produced in Colorado.
Initially, Treatibles was sold only through the company’s Treatibles website, but Auntie Dolores is now making it available in California medical cannabis dispensaries and local pet retail outlets.
Holistic Hound in Berkeley, Calif., was one of the first to carry the product. Store owner Heidi Hill said, while the name incorporates the word “ treats,” she considers Treatibles to be more closely aligned with supplements — they have health benefits.
She said her customers have given Treatibles an enthusiastic reception, with most using the edible to alleviate their dogs’ anxiety and, in some cases, pain.
The quality of its non-cannabis ingredients — among them, organic, gluten-free oat flour; pumpkin; peanut butter; organic coconut oil and coconut nectar; organic brown rice flour; applesauce; turmeric; and cinnamon —also recommends it, she says.
What Veterinarians Say
While many dog owners have seen positive outcomes, some veterinary professionals worry about people extrapolating from their own experiences to their dogs’ health problems and giving dogs inappropriate amounts.
“Sometimes public sentiment and activity get ahead of the scientific background, and that can be dangerous,” Barry Kellogg, senior veterinary adviser to the Humane Society of the United States, said.
To date, the American Veterinary Medical Association (VMA) has not taken an official position on the use of medical marijuana with animals. The American Holistic VMA is the first, and so far only, veterinary organization to officially encourage research into the safety, dosing and uses of cannabis in animals.
In 2014, the group released a statement that said in part:
“There is a growing body of veterinary evidence that cannabis can reduce pain and nausea in chronically ill or suffering animals, often without the dulling effects of narcotics. This herb may be able to improve the quality of life for many patients, even in the face of life-threatening illnesses.”
Veterinary professionals are generally in agreement that more study is needed.
In a 2013 interview, Dawn Boothe, DVM, Ph.D, director of the Clinical Pharmacology Laboratory at Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, commented:
“Veterinarians do need to be part of the dialogue. A well-designed, controlled clinical trial looking at the use of marijuana to treat cancer pain in animals … would be a wonderful translational study, with relevance to both pets and their people.”
Narda G. Robinson, DVM, director of Colorado State University’s Center for Comparative and Integrative Pain Medicine, concurs.
“There is a big gap that needs to be addressed between those who are already using hemp products and finding value for their animal and science-based practitioners who want to make sure that their patients are receiving safe and effective treatment,” Robinson said. “Research will help bridge that gap.”
Clearly, veterinarians — partners in keeping our animals healthy — have a role to play. While interested in the herb’s potential, many are leery about trying it, not only because of the legal consequences, but also because there’s so little data-based information.
On the other hand, dog owners who have found cannabis useful feel that not including it in the vet-med repertoire is a missed opportunity. Although the tide is slowly turning in that direction, the debate about the utility of medical marijuana and its related components for both people and their pets continues.
Focusing on the science would seem to offer the best pathway to resolution. Controlled studies that determine cannabis’ therapeutic and toxic ranges in veterinary use and standardization of THC and/or CBD content have the potential to make a potent natural ally safely available to our four-legged companions. Removing the threat to veterinarians’ licenses would allow them to provide it.
In transforming anecdote to evidence, we can move from what we think we know to what we actually do know, which would be a very good thing for us and for our dogs as well.
By Susan Tasaki, excerpted from The Bark, issue 83.