Though gaining in popularity and even available (as hemp oil) via major retailers, medical marijuana for dogs and CBD products for pets are a source of confusion. We dug into questions about legal issues, safety, research, and the state of the industry, talking to experts across the spectrum, to get the full scoop. Here’s what we discovered.
The truth about marijuana for dogs
To start, we flew to the Bay Area to talk to some experts.
Gary Richter has been a veterinarian for 20 years and practices integrative animal medicine in Oakland, CA. He’s also the author of “The Ultimate Pet Health Guide.” In this video, Dr. Richter explains the difference between CBD and THC, some common misconceptions around marijuana and pets, and why it’s important to talk to your vet before giving your pet any cannabis products.
Nearby in Berkeley, CA, Heidi Hill talked to us about CBD for dogs at her pet store, Holistic Hound. With a desire to “help improve the health, wellness, and quality of life of animals” and a background in homeopathy, Hill opened the store in 2003. Four years ago, Holistic Hound developed its own line of CBD supplements for pets that are sold in stores across the country. In this video, Hill explains why she believes CBD is an unprecedented “game-changer product” for pet health and wellness.
CBD oil for dog arthritis
We also tracked down two dog owners who’d used CBD with success for their dogs. In both cases, the results surprised them.
Leah Still watched helplessly as her 13-year-old Akita struggled with degenerative arthritis. Though under a vet’s care and taking glucosamine, big Nero had lost interest in going outside, was moving as little as possible, and would rather lie in a dark room than be social. She hadn’t considered medical marijuana for her pet, nor had she heard of CBD oil for dogs, but after coming across a product called Therabis at the Denver Pet Expo in August, she gave the hemp-based product a try.
She was stunned by what happened next.
“I’m not exaggerating when I say he was different after a day,” Still recalled in an email. “His eyes were bright again and his playful ‘Hello, happy to see you’ dance was back. I hadn’t seen that in a few years.” After Nero improved to the point of running up and down the stairs, Still and her family started taking him out on short hikes. He can now handle four or five miles.
CBD oil for a dog with cancer
Gregg Steiner’s shepherd-golden mix Dreyfuss was only four when diagnosed with cancer. The news was devastating, and Steiner, not wanting Dreyfuss to suffer, scheduled an appointment to have him put down. In addition, he tried adding CBD oil to his dog’s food, hoping to make his beloved pet’s last days were pain-free. He just didn’t want to see his dog suffer.
“He was a different dog and much happier.”
The change was dramatic. “He was a different dog and much happier,” Steiner recalled. Dreyfuss’ appetite came back, his attitude brightened, and Steiner was able to push the inevitable appointment back another week.
“I was never hopeful that it was going to cure him. I just wanted to comfort him,” Steiner said.
Steiner and Still are just a few of the many pet owners who have reported marked improvement after using a cannabis product on their animals. Pet parents seek it out for a diverse array of dog ailments like nausea, pain, arthritis, seizures, and anxiety.
But in most cases, they aren’t actually using marijuana—or, not as we think of it. Let’s talk about why.
The difference between marijuana and hemp
As Dr. Richter explains in the video, it’s important to understand the difference between marijuana and hemp because they contain varying amounts of chemical compounds that affect your dog differently.
Marijuana and hemp are both parts of the same Cannabis Sativa plant. Marijuana refers to the plant’s buds, leaves, and resin. The rest of the plant is considered hemp, though that term is not recognized under federal law.
Marijuana contains cannabidiol (CBD) and other chemical compounds but is known for its high levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the substance that causes a psychoactive effect or “high” in humans and dogs. While Dr. Richter explains that small amounts of THC may be helpful for some dogs, he warns against giving it to your dog because it’s difficult to dose and too much can be toxic.
Hemp, on the other hand, contains less than .3% THC but has high amounts of cannabidiol (CBD), which is non-psychoactive and non-toxic.
How CBD affects your dog
Much like in humans, dogs have what are called cannabinoid receptors in their bodies. These receptors reside in what scientists call the endocannabinoid system. Otherwise known as the EC system, it works to balance several of your dog’s bodily functions, including:
- movement and coordination
- immune system response
As a naturally occurring cannabinoid, CBD is molecularly comparable to your dog’s endocannabinoids. When CBD enters your dog’s bloodstream, it binds with cannabinoid receptors to help stimulate and support the EC system in bringing homeostasis (balance) back to any of the aforementioned functions if they’re out of balance.
Current research into medical cannabis for dogs
As more states pass legislation legalizing both medical and recreational marijuana for humans, veterinarians are finding themselves in need of clearer answers for clients seeking cannabis as an alternative treatment for pets.
According to Dr. Tim Hackett, Hospital Director and Professor, Emergency and Critical Care Medicine at Colorado State University, College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, the truth is that not a lot of research has been done. Research has been difficult due to strict legal barriers, but that’s gradually changing as more states pass statutes allowing academic research.
A 2016 survey of Canna-Pet customers conducted by CSU found that over 64% of dog owners felt hemp products helped their animals either moderately or a great deal. While the survey provides promising anecdotal evidence, scientifically controlled research still needs to be done. In other words, medical marijuana for dogs may be effective, but veterinary science isn’t sure.
“There’s no controlled research at all, much less research into how the drugs are metabolized into target treatment species like dogs,” Hackett said. There are studies on the horizon at CSU and other institutions.
“We’re looking to study the effects of marijuana-based drugs in treating some neurologic conditions,” Hackett said, though he could not speak to the specifics of that study yet.
What does the law say about marijuana for dogs?
The proliferation of CBD products for pets (and humans), even in states where medical marijuana is not legal, is confusing to a lot of people. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) states that marijuana is a Schedule 1 drug (the same category as heroin) under the Federal Controlled Substances Act.
However, that act doesn’t include the plant’s stalks under the definition of marijuana. So CBD oil derived from marijuana would violate the act, but CBD oil derived from hemp would not. Therefore, the DEA has no enforcement authority over hemp-based products. That said, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) currently does not condone the use of medical marijuana for dogs and other pets, and each state’s laws on the subject differ.
As a result, the field of veterinary medicine is divided on how to approach CBD for pets. There are no state or federal laws that specifically allow veterinarians to discuss medical cannabis usage in animals, according to Dr. Richter. “There is a bill before the California state legislature that would be the first of its kind, assuming it passes, that would allow vets to discuss with pet owners. That would pave the way for the usage of many different forms of cannabis in California,” he said.
Because of this, your vet may be reluctant to talk about CBD or cannabis use as a treatment option for your pet. Even so, you can legally buy hemp-derived products like CBD oil for dogs and cats, which are used increasingly for pain relief and behavior management.
Uses of CBD oil for dogs
According to Dr. Patrick Mahaney, VMD, CVA, CVJ, who owns California Pet Acupuncture and Wellness (CPAW) in Los Angeles, “cannabis can have antioxidant, anti-cancer, anti-convulsant, anti-inflammatory, analgesic (pain-relieving), sedative, and other positive effects.” It’s been used, legally or illegally, for animals suffering from a variety of ailments since the late 1800s, he says. These include:
- arthritis and other types of inflammation-related pain
- behavior problems
- digestive tract upset
- inflammatory bowel disease
- infections (bacterial, fungal, etc.)
- intervertebral disc disease (IVDD)
- kidney and liver diseases
- seizures and other disorders of the nervous system
- skin disorders
- chronic pain management
- separation anxiety
- noise phobias (one study shows that CBD helped reduce blood pressure and other fear-related physical symptoms in animals)
While experts caution that CBD oil for dogs and related products are not a cure-all, it has demonstrated health benefits for pets and doesn’t have the same side effects as many prescription drugs.
CBD for pets: a blossoming industry
There is a growing number of companies selling CBD oils for dogs, also called tinctures (liquid drops you can add to your dog’s food), capsules, topicals, and treats for pets.
Testing policies, specific ingredients, and consumer stories are available on their websites. Many of these are advertised as hemp oil; many are also mixed with a dog-safe ingredient like coconut oil.
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When buying CBD oil or other CBD products for your dog, look for products that have been third-party tested as the best CBD extracts undergo lab testing for potency or strength.
Another sign of quality is “full-spectrum” CBD. Full-spectrum CBD oil for dogs (or humans) is an extract that contains all compounds found naturally occurring in the cannabis plant, including terpenes, essential oils, and other cannabinoids.
Organically sourced CBD is another great quality indicator, as organic hemp is grown without pesticides.
CBD dosage for dogs
As with any supplement or medicine, how much of the substance you take is just as important as the substance itself. “The general recommendation is that people should not be giving any medicine or supplements to their pets without some sort of medical guidance,” said Dr. Richter.
The amount of CBD that will help your dog will vary. It won’t take high doses of CBD oil for dogs to start feeling better, so start slowly. For dosage, your pet’s diagnosis, size, age, and other medical conditions all play a role.
Because it’s a little tricky, Richter advises that people should first speak with their veterinarian.
Help, my dog ate my stash
Can dogs get high just like humans do? Yes. Is it a good idea? No.
Medical marijuana for dogs in the form of CBD oil or other products is one thing. Accidental ingestion of marijuana is a whole different situation. With more states legalizing medical and recreational pot, pets are becoming increasingly exposed to this risk. Marijuana is much more toxic to dogs than to humans, so though few deaths have been reported, the threat is real. Can dogs get high just like humans do? Yes. Is it a good idea? No.
According to the FDA, contact a vet if you suspect your pet has been exposed to marijuana and is exhibiting any of the following symptoms:
- Heavy drooling
What the future holds for marijuana for dogs
There are studies underway at veterinary universities that will hopefully illuminate the effects of CBD in pets so that vets can safely determine dosage. Until research results are in, the true efficacy and safety of these products remain unproven. Discuss your pet’s health with a veterinarian before deciding on treatment.
The experts interviewed for this guide feel confident that medical cannabis and CBD oil for dogs are highly effective medicines when used appropriately. “The entire veterinary medical community needs to take a hard look at this and realize that medical cannabis is here to stay in this country,” Richter said. “We need to get involved in this discussion with pet owners to prevent animals from being harmed [by] pet owners using it without appropriate medical guidance.”
“Medical cannabis is here to stay in this country.”
If there’s a place to start with CBD for dogs, it’s doing your research. “Just like with any supplement, there is no government oversight and people need to do their due diligence,” Richter said. It’s important to make sure you’re buying CBD oil from a reputable company producing high-quality medicine, he adds.
Mahaney added that it’s vital that you consult with your veterinarian first before giving your pet any kind of alternative supplement. As some conventional vets may not be experienced with alternative medicine, you can find a list of holistic veterinarians in your area at www.ahvma.org.