Even before the legalization of recreational cannabis last year, hype the pet world over claimed the beneficial effects of cannabis and its derived products. Just about every pet owner wanted to know if cannabis or cannabis-derived products were going to help their pets.
The straight answer from your veterinarian is this: we don’t know.
That’s right. While our knowledge of cannabis is rapidly advancing, we still have significant gaps in our veterinary knowledge.
We simply do not know, in any of our patient species, the mechanisms of action, pharmacokinetics or pharmacodynamics – or, in layman’s terms, how it works, how it moves through the body and what its effects are. These are some the things we need to know about any drug before it’s allowed to come on the market safely.
We are guessing the dosages – different species metabolize things like drugs or toxins differently — and may not even be aware when we are creating unpleasantness or doing harm with the side-effects. Added to that, we don’t know if we are prescribing cannabis for the right diseases or if it is truly helping when we do.
Never mind the outrageous cure-all claims — but given the difference between species, what works for humans often does not work for our pets. Just because cannabis helped you, does not mean it is going to help your pet. It may even harm, not just because of the side-effects, but that we may be neglecting to give a treatment that could help.
The good news is that there is research going on, but it will be a few years yet before we have some answers.
We also lack consensus in what forms of cannabis are best to use in the different species.
We know that dogs are extremely sensitive to THC, the psychoactive compound in cannabis, and so most pet people are using CBD oils, which are not psychoactive.
Some fans of cannabis are firm in their opinion that it’s better to use the whole plant, even though this could potentially expose the dog to toxic quantities of THC. It also provides no reliable dosing because of variations in strains, growing conditions and suppliers.
There are no Health Canada-approved CBD products for animals. The safest products are currently those approved for use in humans, because of the quality control and research that has been done. Even so, as pet owners using these products off-label, relying on anecdotes, celebrity recommendations, pseudoscience and marketing to guide us instead of evidence-based science means we may be wasting our money at best and at worst harming the animal we are trying to help.
Veterinarians and their patients are not included in any of the acts that govern the use of cannabis; these apply to human physicians and patients only. While veterinarians are lobbying for inclusion, this means they currently have no legal way to prescribe or recommend cannabis to you and your pet.
However, that does not stop you from having open discussions with your veterinarian about using cannabis for your pets. Your veterinarian will want to know if you are giving any supplements or drugs to your pet, in case they interact with other drugs, and can discuss the latest research as it applies to your pet.
Use your veterinarian for objective guidance to assess if that cannabis product is really benefiting your pet.
To end this cautionary tale, especially to dog owners, keep all cannabis and cannabis-derived products well out of reach. Edibles, especially those made with butter, oils and chocolate, are tempting but highly toxic to dogs.
And if you are dosing your pet, be aware of the potential for toxicity and harmful side-effects. Use safely.
Nicolette Joosting is a Harrison Hot Springs resident and veterinarian who has recently retired from her Vancouver Feline practice. She keeps herself busy through the Harrison Veterinary Service, her blog and by volunteering in the community.