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5 Things to Know Before Using Medical Cannabis for Your Pets

(Julia Sumpter/Leafly)

A growing number of veterinarians believe cannabidiol (CBD) products can be effective in treating an array of ailments in dogs and cats, from anxiety to a lack of appetite—but federal and state laws make it nearly impossible for them to discuss it with pet owners.

That’s why Dr. Greg Richter, a veterinarian in California, and Dr. Rob Silver, a holistic vet and pet herbalist in Colorado, have working in home states and beyond to educate pet owners and legislators on the benefits of treating pets with cannabis. Silver has even published a book, Medical Marijuana & Your Pet: The Definitive Guide, which draws on his research and experience to help people determine whether cannabinoid treatment is right for your animal.

Leafly spoke with both vets at the Green Flower Media Cannabis Health Summit in Los Angeles to find out what pet owners should know before they start a treatment regimen.

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1. It’s Illegal for Vets to Prescribe Cannabis to Pets

Vets don’t have the authority to prescribe a Schedule I drug, so don’t expect a quick trip to the local animal hospital to yield a doggie bag for Fido. In fact, vets in many states are barred from counseling pet owners on the potential therapeutic uses of cannabis, Richter explained.

“Right now it’s a conversation that has to be had very, very carefully between veterinarians and pet owners so nobody gets into legal jeopardy,” he said.

Silver added that because many veterinarians risk their licenses and criminal prosecution for prescribing cannabis to pets, they have to be very careful in how they talk about the plant. “As far as our First Amendment freedom of speech to speak directly about this,” he said, “if we’re not giving medical advice—if we’re giving educational information—it’s a much easier situation.”

In California, Richter has been leading the push for legislation that would legalize “compassionate use” of cannabis for animals in the same way the state has approved medical cannabis for humans. He’s created an online petition calling for a change that would allow vets to “provide guidance to people regarding the safe and effective use of cannabis for their pets.”

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Vets risk facing disciplinary action if they have any “involvement in the treatment of an animal with marijuana or hemp,” the petition notes. And according to California’s Veterinary Medical Board, in the event of a complaint related to a vet’s treatment of a pet with hemp or cannabis, the board “would be obligated to conduct an investigation and take appropriate disciplinary action if the findings so warranted.”

2. Don’t Calculate Dosage as if Your Pets Were Just Small Humans

Trying to take a human-size dose of cannabis and extrapolate dosage for animal use is an “invitation for disaster,” warned Richter, noting that overconsumption of THC can cause serious health risks in pets. Most issues arise when pets simply break into their owners’ own stash, indiscriminately consuming the cannabis, but careless dosage can also cause problems.

“Hemp-based cannabinoids, which are very low in THC, can cover almost all the bases.”
Dr. Rob Silver, veterinarian

To avoid a ticket to the emergency room, Richter said, start by choosing the right product for your animal’s needs and then start slowly. As you increase the dose, be careful to observe any side effects and back off treatment if it seems to be adversely affecting your animal.

Signs of overconsumption can include vomiting, diarrhea, trouble with equilibrium, or seeming zoned-out or spacey.

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3. Can’t Get Your Paws on Cannabis? Try Hemp-Derived Products

Depending on your location, cannabis products can be hard to come by. Luckily, hemp-based treatments are available in all 50 states and can provide some of the same relief. Hemp  products are high in CBD, a cannabis compound that has lauded medical uses but doesn’t cause the psychoactive high that comes with THC.

Silver pointed to decades-old government research that found that, of all species, dogs have the highest density of THC receptors in their hind brain. That, he said, makes them extremely sensitive to its effects. Because THC exists at such low levels in hemp products, it means a lower risk of overconsumption.

“In my experience, I found that using hemp-based cannabinoids, which are very low in THC, can cover almost all the bases as far as applications,” he said. “That’s where I always start.”

While Richter, in California, acknowledged that hemp-based products can be effective and are more widely available, he prefers to use cannabis products whenever possible in order to take advantage of the plant’s entourage effect—the synergistic results created by the hundreds of active compounds in cannabis working together. That effect disappears when you try to isolate a specific elements, he said.

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4. Pets Have Anxiety, Arthritis, and Cancer, Too

Although the dosage proportions aren’t the same, cannabis can be used to treat the same conditions in pets that it’s used to treat in humans. Cannabis has proven highly effective in treating ailments—including conditions such as anxiety, stress, arthritis, seizures, and even cancer symptoms—in dogs and cats, Richter said. “It’s really just an amazingly versatile drug when used properly.”

Previous surveys and studies of cannabis use in pets have shown that owners have also tried using cannabis-based treatments to manage separation anxiety, noise phobia, irritable bowel syndrome, lack of appetite in their animals. Dog owners reported that hemp products were most effective in treating pain and helping their pet sleep, according to a report published last year in the Journal of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association. The most common side effects cited were sedation and an overactive appetite. Turns out even dogs get the munchies.

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5. Pets Can’t Puff, Puff, Pass—So Try These Methods Instead

There are plenty of edibles for pets these days—including biscuits, soft-chews, and more—that provide easy ways to medicate pets. But a better choice might be a tincture.

“The most commonly suggested format is what they call a tincture, which is usually oil-based and has a very set amount of the cannabinoids in it,” Silver said. Tincture is an extract, typically sold in a small bottle that comes with a dropper, and is recommended for use by the drop or milliliter.

Cannabinoids are best absorbed through a pet’s oral mucus membrane, Silver added, so medicating is as simple as spreading the tincture on your pet’s tongue.

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Silver sells his own hemp-based products through his company, Rx Vitamins for Pets, which offers a range of vitamins and CBD treatments. As far as marijuana products go, Richter said he’s seen “excellent results” in products made by Lovingly and Legally, a California-based company that has products with THC-to-CBD ratios formulated specifically for pets.