Pot for Pets? It's Not As Strange As You Think

Working as closely with the veterinary industry as I do, I learn new ways that medicine for pets is keeping pace with medicine for people just about every day. There seems to be no technique or technology doctors use on humans that can't be applied to treat furry friends - even Eastern methods like acupuncture and massage are becoming common. But there's one unconventional treatment crossing over that has surprised even me: medical marijuana for pets.

You read that right. Now that nearly half of the U.S. has legalized medical marijuana for people, veterinarians and researchers (and some pet parents) are wondering about its viability as a treatment for animals. But while doctors in states where medical marijuana is legal are allowed to recommend the drug to patients, it is still illegal in every state for veterinarians to do the same. In other words, veterinary medicinal marijuana dispensaries are still a long way off.

Can medicinal marijuana really benefit our four-legged friends? Anecdotal research suggests the drug is effective for pain management and palliative care and doesn't carry the same damaging side effects to the liver that are common with traditional medicines. But real scientific research isn't quite legal yet because of the way marijuana is classified as a drug, so these results are speculative at best. And until scientists are able to prove the safety and efficacy of marijuana for furry friends, pet parents should treat the drug like any other human medication and keep it well out of paws' reach.

Marijuana is toxic to pets. In fact, the Pet Poison Hotline reports that over the last five years, there has been a 200% increase in the amount of calls they have received regarding marijuana toxicity. And while some of those cases are accidental byproducts of recreational use, others occur when well-meaning owners administer tinctures or edibles to pets thinking that it will help their pain. Not only is there insufficient research to validate this, but our pets also lack the liver enzymes to metabolize the active ingredient in marijuana (THC), making them especially prone to dangerous overdoses.

Marijuana poisoning can make pets very sick, causing vomiting, incoordination, stupor, slow heart rate and dilated pupils. What's worse, these effects can last up to 96 hours after ingestion. The takeaway here is that you can't just give your pet pot and hope it has the same effects on him as it does for you; an overdose is no picnic for furry friends.

But what about specially formulated cannabis-derived pet products? While safer for pets to ingest (they're made from the less-potent stem of the cannabis plant known as hemp), they're still subject to each state's marijuana laws - and there's no state in which veterinarians are permitted to prescribe cannabis to pets. Additionally, the Food and Drug Administration recently began sending out warning letters to companies selling cannabis-based products for animals. So for now, medicinal marijuana for pets is still illegal, and probably not worth the risk.

That said, there may be some promise for the use of medicinal marijuana in pets; studies have found that cannabinoid receptors are present in mammals, birds, reptiles and fish. But scientists are only staring to learn about marijuana's effects on animals, and until legislation catches up to reality to allow for more research - and establish guidelines for quality and dosage - there will continue to be some major unknowns.

The day may come when veterinarians prescribe pot for pets as easily as they dish out scripts for Tramadol or Ampicillin, but until then, pet parents would do best to make health decisions for their furry friends only under the counsel of their veterinarian.

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