By Matt Soniak
Twenty-three states (plus the District of Columbia) have comprehensive medical marijuana laws. Another 17 allow the use of low THC, high cannabidiol (CBD) cannabis products for medical use. In these states, patients know where they stand and what their options are if they want access to medical marijuana—but only if they’re human.
For dogs, the issue of access to medical marijuana is more complicated. And whether or not medical cannabis can benefit canines is even less clear.
Medical marijuana laws don’t apply to pets or the veterinarians that treat them. Vets can’t prescribe medical marijuana to their patients, and even suggesting it as an option can lead to trouble. There is no formal scientific research about marijuana’s efficacy for dogs.
Medical marijuana for pets is “good in theory,” says Dr. Robin Downing, a veterinarian and the hospital director at the Downing Center for Animal Pain Management in Windsor, Colo. Like us, dogs have cannabinoid receptors, so there is a scientific basis for thinking that marijuana could help some of the same ailments for them as it does for humans. The groundwork is there for learning more, but that’s where things get tricky.
Understanding Current Cannabis Laws
Marijuana is a Schedule I controlled substance according to the federal government, regarded as having “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” To do any clinical studies on its medical applications, researchers need to register with the Drug Enforcement Agency and get a special license for the site where the study will take place, submit an application for the study to the Food and Drug Administration and obtain the marijuana from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
These are not insignificant hurdles, and without peer-reviewed research, gaining an understanding about whether cannabis can help dogs or how remains difficult. “We have no safety data, no efficacy data and no dosing data,” Downing says.
Anecdotal Evidence of Cannabis Benefiting Dogs
What we do have is a lot of anecdotal data. Some pet owners aren’t waiting for the science or the law to catch up with what they see as a viable option for treating their pets’ illnesses or making them more comfortable. Before his death in 2013, California veterinarian Doug Kramer was one of the most prominent and vocal proponents of veterinary marijuana and, through his website and surveys, amassed several hundred reports from pet owners who experimented with “veterinary cannabis,” most of them positive.
If marijuana isn’t available to dogs, what were these people using? Despite marijuana’s Schedule I status, there are still some cannabis products available for pets. They’re made from hemp, a different variety of the same plant as marijuana, Cannabis sativa. Hemp is subject to different regulations than marijuana and contains very little THC (the cannabinoid in marijuana that produces a “high” that can be toxic to dogs), but does contain CBD, the cannabinoid implicated as having a range of medical applications.
A survey published in the Journal of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association found that, out of 632 people, 72 percent reported using or having used a hemp product for their dog (and 104 tried it with their cat) and 64 percent felt that it helped their pets.
A few different hemp-derived edible treats are available for dogs online, in dispensaries and even at veterinarians’ offices.
Vets Warn Against Hemp Supplements
Beyond the lack of research on treating pets with cannabis, many vets urge caution when using these hemp products for another reason. They’re treated like supplements and not pharmaceuticals, and haven’t undergone the same testing that new drugs and medicines do. Downing says there is currently no regulation of, and no data about, hemp supplements, and highly variable content levels of their active ingredients. Some of the companies that make these supplements received warning letters from the FDA last year about their marketing practices, specifically that they were marketed and labeled “for use in the mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease in animals” without FDA approval.
“The lack of oversight, quality control and utter inability to know what is actually in the product is what bothers me,” Dr. Lisa Moses, a Massachusetts-based veterinarian who serves on the board of the International Veterinary Academy of Pain Management, says of the supplements. “In the case of hemp based supplements, the lack of knowledge about specific toxicity to animals is an additional problem.”
The Future of Medical Marijuana and the Veterinary Community
For now, we simply don’t know for sure if dogs could benefit from medical cannabis in any of its forms, but that could change as public attitudes and even some laws surrounding cannabis shift.
Legislators are pushing to open marijuana up to more scientific research and extend the potential benefits of medical marijuana to pets. Last year, Arizona State Senator Tick Segerblom introduced a bill that would have allowed the state to issue medical marijuana cards to pets with certain illnesses and required the state to regulate medical marijuana products for animals, including their formulation, labeling and dosage. The bill died after failing to get a hearing in the Committee on Health and Human Services. In Florida, a bill introduced earlier this year would authorize the University of Florida to work with veterinary researchers to “conduct research to determine the benefits and contraindications of the use of low-THC cannabis and low-THC cannabis products for treatment of animals with seizure disorders or other life-limiting illnesses.” That bill is currently in committee. Meanwhile, the 2014 Farm Bill allowed for academic researchers to grow and conduct research on hemp.
“In my opinion, research into cannabis as it relates to veterinary medicine is vital for a number of reasons,” says Dr. Narda Robinson, a veterinarian and director of the Colorado State University Center for Comparative and Integrative Pain Medicine. “While the anecdotal effects do sound intriguing and potentially beneficial, research will help us sort the actual effects of cannabis from those of placebo. Research would also allow us to more rigorously assess and document the adverse effects.
“Only then will we as veterinarians be able to weigh the risk-benefit ratio from a scientifically informed perspective.”
Image: TANAKORN KRUNGSRI via Shutterstock