6 things you should know about cannabis for dogs

6 things you should know about cannabis for dogs

What does the legalization of cannabis in Canada mean for your dog?

Cannabis has consistently topped headlines over the last year, and the hype around its use extends to our animal companions too. More and more people are searching for safe and effective alternatives to conventional medicine, and with the recent legalization of cannabis in Canada, many pet parents and veterinarians wonder what this means for our dogs.

“The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) and the Canadian Association of Veterinary Cannabinoid Medicine are working with Health Canada to establish guidelines for veterinarians so they can work with cannabis in their practices,” says Dr. Katherine Kramer, Medical Director of VCA-Canada Vancouver Animal Wellness Hospital.

Unfortunately, she adds, at this point, veterinarians are not allowed to recommend or prescribe cannabis products. And depending on where you live, your veterinarian might not be able to discuss this with you unless you ask first.

That being said, cannabis pet supplements are readily available online, in dispensaries and pet stores. And while reports suggest cannabis works well for some canine conditions, the concern is that people may inappropriately use their legal medicinal cannabis on their pets, thereby increasing the already rising rate of accidental marijuana toxicosis in pets.

In the meantime, pet parents need to educate themselves before using these products on their pets. While that education should include a chat with your vet, here are six things you should know about cannabis for dogs.

1. Both hemp and marijuana are cannabis, but they are very different

Cannabis is perhaps the oldest cultivated crop on the planet. For thousands of years, this plant has been used as a source of food, fibre and medicine. Hemp and marijuana are just two of the countless varieties of cannabis. Think about it this way – while dogs all belong to the species, Canis familiaris, Great Danes are vastly different from Chihuahuas. Both hemp and marijuana contain a wide variety of chemicals called cannabinoids, including tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). But the ratios found in these two plants differ greatly. Hemp contains high concentrations of CBD and low amounts of THC (0.3% dry weight basis). Marijuana contains large amounts of THC (5% to 25%) with low concentrations of CBD.

2. Cannabis works with the endocannabinoid system, which is present in every mammal.

The effects of cannabis occur naturally through its interaction with the endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS serves as an intricate messenger system that consists of a group of fatty acids the body makes (endocannabinoids) and their receptors. When an endocannabinoid attaches to a receptor, it causes a physiologic response. The ECS’s principal role is to maintain homeostasis, or balance. The cannabinoids in cannabis can stimulate the ECS.

“The cannabis plant is the only plant known to man that has an entire receptor system devoted just to it,” explains Dr. Kramer.

3. Dogs are much more sensitive to THC

Both dogs and cats have ten times more cannabinoid receptors in their brains and central nervous systems than humans do. “Because it affects the brain, THC causes psychotropic effects and can lead to drops in blood pressure, heart arrhythmias, ataxia and seizures,” says Dr. Kramer. “The toxic effect is amplified if the THC is within another toxic substance such as chocolate or xylitol.”

4. Cannabis can help with many conditions

Cannabis appears to have multiple benefits for pets. “Most of my patients that are taking cannabis products are dealing with chronic pain (in the form of cancer, arthritis, chronic pancreatitis, or inflammatory bowel disease), seizures, anxiety and allergies,” says Dr. Kramer, who has witnessed positive effects in hundreds of patients over the last eight years.

From the way we know that cannabis interacts with the endocannabinoid system, Dr. Kramer also believes it should have benefits for dogs with cardiac disease or high blood pressure, diabetes, asthma, and glaucoma.

5. Most dogs do well on CBD, but a few can experience side effects

While most dogs seem to get relief from CBD products, a few can experience side effects. “CBD is thought to be non-psychotropic, meaning it doesn’t affect the brain, but high doses can certainly cause a pet to be hyperactive or restless,” explains Dr. Kramer. She adds that some dogs may experience increases in stool production because of the fibre content. Vomiting and diarrhea can occur as well, and dog parents should watch for allergy symptoms.

6. Quality control is important

Studies are ongoing to determine the most beneficial and safest forms of cannabis for pets. In the meantime, there are numerous products available – some are made from hemp, some from cannabis strains with higher amounts of CBD and THC, and some using an extracted form of CBD. Until these products are more regulated for quality control, it’s important to educate yourself and talk to your veterinarian.

“Products should clearly state the cannabinoid potency and should carry a Certificate of Analysis (COA) from the manufacturer identifying all contents, including any residual traces of pesticides, solvents or other contaminants,” says Dr. Kramer. The COA will also confirm that the potency of CBD and THC (% or mg/g) are as advertised.

Talk to your vet

Cannabis can help with a number of conditions. If you want to try cannabis to help improve your dog’s physical, mental or emotional health, speak to your veterinarian. It’s particularly important if your dog is already on medication, in case there’s a danger for potential interactions. If your vet isn’t up to speed, this may encourage her to educate herself more fully on the subject!

Does cannabis work?

In an online survey originally piloted by faculty at Colorado State University, and conducted by a company that specializes in hemp products for animals, almost 65% of participants reported the products were moderately or very helpful in relieving pain, while 50% reported they were moderately or very helpful in aiding with sleep and relieving anxiety. The vast majority felt the products worked better than other treatments or therapies, with only 7% saying they felt they didn’t work as well.

CBD products

CBD oil is available in different forms. Generally, it is administered via a dropper (based on weight and severity of condition) but some companies offer capsules. You’ll also find CBD treats on the market – these can prove beneficial for skin and coat but typically don’t contain enough CBD for medicinal purposes.

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Dana Cox is the co-founder, Chief Creative Officer and editor-in-chief of Redstone Media Group, which publishes Canadian Dogs Annual, Animal Wellness Magazine, Equine Wellness Magazine and Integrative Veterinary Care Journal, and associated websites. She regularly attends veterinary conferences to stay apprised of leading edge and best practice therapies and modalities. Dana lives in Peterborough, ON with her husband and fellow co-founder, Tim Hockley, and their family which includes two children, a dog and a cat.