Is medical marijuana safe for pets?
A Los Angeles veterinarian launches a national conversation after treating his own dying dog with cannabis, but even he agrees that more scientific research is needed.
Tue, Aug 06 2013 at 12:24 PM
Photo: Sion Touhig/Getty Images
For the first time in more than four decades, a majority of Americans favor legalizing marijuana, and as cannabis has become more widely accepted, so have its potential uses — including giving it to pets.
Search the Web and you’ll find a wealth of anecdotal evidence from pet owners about how cannabis improved the lives of their sick and dying furry companions. But it wasn’t until Los Angeles veterinarian Doug Kramer spoke out on the issue earlier this year that the issue of pets and marijuana gained national attention.
"I grew tired of euthanizing pets when I wasn't doing everything I could to make their lives better," he told The Associated Press. "I felt like I was letting them down."
Kramer hadn’t given much thought to marijuana’s potential to help animals until his Siberian husky, Nikita, developed terminal cancer.
"Nikita was wasting away, and she’d stopped eating," he says in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. "I’d exhausted every available pharmaceutical pain option, even steroids. At that point, it was a quality-of-life issue, and I felt like I’d try anything to ease her suffering."
Kramer started feeding Nikita a small amount of marijuana, and soon her appetite returned and she began meeting him at the door again. While cannabis wasn’t a cure, he says it improved the dog’s quality of life and gave him an extra six weeks with her.
"I don’t want to come across as being overly in favor of giving marijuana to pets," he said. "My position is the same as the AMA’s. We need to investigate marijuana further to determine whether the case reports I’m hearing are true or whether there’s a placebo effect at work. We also need to know what the risks are."
Although medical marijuana is legal for people in 20 states and the District of Columbia, it’s still considered an illicit drug under federal law. Physicians in states where medical marijuana is sanctioned can recommend the drug to patients, but such protections don’t apply to veterinarians.
The Associated Press reached out to veterinarians who say they share Kramer’s view on cannabis, but they wouldn’t talk on the record for fear of arrest.
Dr. Duncan Lascelles, a professor of surgery and pain management at North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine, is interested in studying marijuana as a treatment for pets, but says research could take a decade to ensure such a medication will be effective and free of side effects.
He says such testing would be complex because even after the suitable extract, drug, root and dose are identified, the problem remains that not all pain syndromes are alike.
"I think it’s pretty bad that there are a number of veterinarians that are giving a variety of different products by a variety of different roots without any bases behind it at all," he told Technician, N.C. State University’s student newspaper.
But pet owners often aren’t waiting on the science. They share stories about how giving their cats, dogs and even horses a treat made with cannabis has made a vast improvement in the animals’ quality of life. Often, they say it's worth the risk because their pets are dying and in pain.
Still, most vets caution pet owners to wait until testing can confirm the safety of medical marijuana for animals. They point to a study by two Colorado animal hospitals that compared the number of dogs treated for what appeared to be accidental marijuana overdoses between 2005 and 2010 with increases in the number of marijuana licenses issued. As registrations increased 146-fold, the number of sickened pets went up four-fold.
Dogs that have overdosed on cannabis will often appear dazed and sleepy, and they can also exhibit vomiting, tremors and urinary incontinence. Fatalities from pets consuming marijuana are possible but rare.
According to the Animal Critical Care and Emergency Services clinic in Renton, Wash., which has reported an increase such cases since recreational marijuana became legal, treatment can include inducing vomiting or giving the dog activated charcoal to soak up toxins.
Veterinarians urge people with marijuana in the home to keep the substance out pets' reach. They also recommend not administering cannabis to an animal without consulting a medical professional.
"Animals aren’t making that free choice. We’re making the choice for them," Lascelles said. "It’s incumbent upon us to have all that knowledge to make the right choice for them."
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