Something was wrong with Betsy Gotbaum’s poodle.
Harry, a reddish-brown 5-month-old puppy, was usually a ball of energy. But Gotbaum, the former New York City public advocate, had a hard time rousing him one morning last month.
“He wouldn’t eat, he wouldn’t drink, his head was bobbling back and forth,” Gotbaum said.
When he tried to get up, he staggered and fell. “We were afraid it was something neurological.”
She rushed Harry to Animal Medical Center on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Many tests were done. Only one came back positive: Harry had gotten his paws on some marijuana.
A few days later in Queens, a veterinarian came home from work to find her own cairn terrier, Bella, lying in her urine, trembling and fearful.
The vet did not have to wonder why: A bag of white-chocolate marijuana goodies she had picked up in Colorado sat empty beside Bella.
“Dog freaks out on pot” may sound like a scene from a stoner comedy or a viral video, but it happens surprisingly often. In New York City, veterinarians say, canine marijuana poisoning has become a daily occurrence.
“We probably see close to one a day at one of our four hospitals,” said David Wohlstadter, senior emergency clinician for the city locations of the veterinary chain Blue Pearl. “And we’ve definitely seen an increase in the past couple of years.”
Animal Medical Center says it treats several cases a week.
Fortunately, the effects – lethargy, wobbling gait, dribbling urine and saliva, overreacting to sound and light and movement – are not life-threatening. Treatment usually consists of inducing vomiting, if the ingestion was recent enough, and simply keeping the dog hydrated in a quiet place until the drug clears, though that can take a couple of days.
Tina Wismer, the medical director of the ASPCA’s national animal poison control center, said she did not know of a single death from a dog eating marijuana that did not also involve chocolate, which is highly toxic. But a few have come close.
“We always used to joke about treating marijuana with fluids and Doritos and Pink Floyd,” Wismer said. “But we have had some serious intoxication – animals that become comatose, with extremely low blood pressure.”
The center saw a 144 percent increase in pet marijuana overdose calls from 2010 to 2015. New York generated more calls than any other state except California.
It is unclear whether dogs have a lower tolerance than humans for THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, but regardless, the math is unforgiving: A single cookie potent enough to get a 150-pound human righteously stoned could have 10 times that effect on a 15-pound dog.
“I’ve had owners come in and they are stoned and they recognize some of the severity, but they just think it’s the funniest thing and they can’t stop laughing in the exam room,” said Brett Levitzke, medical director of the Veterinary Emergency and Referral Group in Brooklyn. “To the poor dog, it’s not very funny.”
(Some vets and pet owners have used marijuana derivatives to treat seizures and pain and to stimulate appetite, but those products frequently contain very little or no THC; when they contain more, they are administered in controlled doses.)
Sometimes, the owner is slow to come clean about the cause of the dog’s malaise.
“I tell them, ‘Look, I’m not the police, I really don’t care, it’s just going to help me diagnose your dog a lot quicker,’” Levitzke said. He explained that a confession could also save money on tests for more serious conditions like kidney failure and liver disease that produce similar symptoms. Often, Levitzke said, owners will say the animal got into their roommate’s stash.
Harry the poodle’s vet, Richard Goldstein, chief medical officer at Animal Medical Center, said that a trip to the veterinary emergency room can lead to some tense family discussions.
“Sometimes the parents find out that the kid had some, and an interesting family dynamic develops,” Goldstein said. “I’ve had cases where the parents asked me to talk to the kid to explain the repercussions of the kid’s carelessness.”
For Gotbaum’s part, she swears she last smoked marijuana circa 1976 (she could not stop laughing and hated it).
“I would tell you – I don’t care, makes no difference to me anymore,” said Gotbaum, who is 78 years old and has not held public office since 2009. Her live-in boyfriend, Peter Lewis, said he never tried it, as did their housekeeper, Julia Alvarez, who often takes Harry for his walks.
The household’s working theory is that Harry scarfed something off the ground the night before on a walk to the entrance of Central Park. “In the park, I’m always smelling marijuana,” Alvarez said.
Cats, by the way, tend not to partake. The ASPCA poison center says that dogs account for about 95 percent of pet marijuana poisonings.
“Dogs put some really dumb things in their mouths,” Levitzke said. “We have dogs come in that have mouth and esophageal burns from drinking bleach. You never see a cat do that because they’re smart. Dogs will try anything once, sometimes twice.”
Indeed, a 6-pound terrier-Chihuahua mix in Greenwich Village has made two emergency trips to the vet since December.
“I know it sounds like we’re horribly irresponsible people,” said his owner, a 55-year-old woman who gave her name only as Jane. She said her husband, a retired lawyer, smoked daily and that “a tiny piece of a roach or something must have fallen off the table.”
Preventing such cases would seem to be as simple as keeping one’s stash secured, but that can be difficult.
In Crown Heights, Brooklyn, there is a food-obsessed shiba inu who belongs to a woman who loves marijuana. One day in December she cooked an ounce and a half of pot in coconut oil to draw out the THC, put the oil in a big batch of brownies, made tea with the mostly spent leaves and threw them away. As she does whenever she leaves home, she secured the trash can with childproof locks and put it on top of the stove.
The woman came home to a heap of trash on the floor and the dog sprawled in the midst of it.
“He was just really body stoned and completely jelly,” said the woman, who produces fashion shoots and spoke on the condition that her name not be used. “His tongue was hanging out of his mouth, his head was lolled over, but any kind of movement in his peripheral vision would just scare the crap out of him.”
Next time she makes brownies, the woman said, “I’m going to dilute the weed in a whole bunch of water so that it’s nothing, and then I’m going to flush it down the toilet.”