Pot for pets? Let’s let science weigh in

We bet you know at least one person who shares his or her stash with a pet. Not to get the animal high, but to relieve anxiety, nausea or pain from cancer or another ailment. But does it really work?

That’s hard to say. Anecdotes aside, no research to date shows any benefit of marijuana for dogs or cats. Only minimal research is available on its effects in humans. That’s because federal law classifies it as a Schedule I drug with no medical usefulness. Regulatory restrictions hamper researchers’ ability to study marijuana’s potential benefits for humans or animals.

In theory, cannabinoids – the chemical compounds found in marijuana – carry great promise, says Robin Downing, DVM, a pain management expert and hospital director at the Downing Center for Animal Pain Management in Windsor, Colo. Dogs and cats possess cannabinoid receptors. Think of them as the “lock” into which cannabinoid molecules fit like keys.

“These are exquisitely specific receptors that do not interact with other molecules,” Dr. Downing says. Unlike THC, cannabinoids are not involved in altered mentation, but they are credited with other actions in the nervous system, such as pain relief and relief of seizure activity.

“This is what gives us hope that medical marijuana will at some point become an important tool in the pain management toolbox,” she says.

That can’t happen, though, until the drug is better understood. Right now, little is known about dosing and delivery of medical marijuana to pets.

The idea of treating pet ailments with marijuana may give rise to the image of coming home to a dog or cat who’s chowing down on Doritos and listening to Bob Marley. The truth is, we don’t know a lot about how pets respond to marijuana because they can’t tell us how they feel.

“For animals, we have no safety data, no efficacy data and no dosing data,” Dr. Downing says.

For example, she says, humans can adjust their doses based on their response to a drug, but animals cannot.

“How do we know what they are feeling? How can we tell when they have received ‘enough’ to create whatever effect we seek for them?”

At veterinary emergency hospitals, marijuana is the number-one intoxicant for pets, especially in states such as California, Colorado and Washington, which have legalized medical and recreational marijuana. A retrospective study published in 2012 looked at cases in two Colorado veterinary hospitals from 2005 to 2010. Researchers found that the incidence of marijuana toxicosis in dogs increased fourfold over the period.

Typical incidents include eating an owner’s baked goods that contain marijuana or THC-laced butter or coconut oil, eating the actual plants or inhaling smoke.

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and Kim Campbell Thornton.