As dog owners, we often take veterinary treatment for granted.
We give our dogs antibiotics to clear infections; anti-parasitic drugs to prevent heartworm; and topical ointments to soothe rashes and lacerations.
But unfortunately, modern veterinary medicine does not yet have all the answers.
Some ailments defy attempts at treatment, leaving veterinarians with little help or hope to offer their clients and their pups.
Sometimes the treatments they can perform or medicines they can prescribe are worse than the original affliction.
When faced with such unenviable challenges, some dog owners consider using alternative or experimental medications to help ease their pet’s suffering. One such alternative treatment that is gaining more and more attention is the use of cannabis for dogs.
While little research has been conducted on the subject, and veterinarians have yet to arrive at a consensus on the subject, a number of anecdotal reports suggest that it may be helpful in some cases.
The medicinal use of cannabis has become quite widespread over the last few years. California became the first state to permit the legal, medicinal use of cannabis in 1996, and 25 states and the District of Columbia have followed suit since then.
Nevertheless, a lot of people remain skeptical about the medicinal value of cannabis and think that medicinal use is just an excuse for people to get high.
But to the contrary, plenty of real, university-conducted studies, published in well-recognized, peer reviewed journals have demonstrated that there are a variety of medicinal applications for cannabis.
So, the evidence demonstrates that cannabis has legitimate medical applications — at least as far as humans are concerned. The question is, can it help treat your sick dog?
Because it is such a pharmacological powerhouse for people, it is reasonable to wonder if cannabis may also treat a variety of ailments in dogs – particularly those illnesses that are difficult to treat otherwise. Our four-footed friends are very biologically different from humans in some respects, but they are quite like us in others.
You may even use some of the same medications to treat your children and your canines. But it is not yet clear if cannabis is suitable for use in dogs. Very little research has been conducted on the subject, and the bulk of the collective wisdom has come almost exclusively from anecdotal accounts.
Some people have used cannabis to help protect their dogs from the unpleasant side effects of opioids, or to help calm their pooch’s anxiety (although it’s worth noting there’s plenty of dog-friendly anxiety medicine available, both online and via vet prescriptions).
Others owners have cannabis to treat their dog’s nausea or reduce the inflammation associated with bladder cancer.
However, most reputable poisonous plant lists include cannabis (typically under the slightly pejorative term marijuana) somewhere between garlic and nightshade. But, as toxicologists are fond of saying, “the dose makes the poison.” It is possible that cannabis is safe for dogs at low doses, and problematic at high doses.
The unfortunate truth is, scientists don’t yet know if cannabis is a valid treatment for your dog’s medical problems, nor do they know what the safe dosage range is. The only way to learn these things is through careful, rigorous trials, which will take years to complete.
To understand the medicinal use of cannabis, you must learn a little about its chemical composition. Cannabis contains a variety of different active ingredients, called cannabinoids. Different cannabinoids elicit different effects in the body.
Although scientists are only beginning to examine medical cannabis for dogs, they do know that dogs have the same cannabis-sensitive neural circuitry that we do.
Called the endocannabinoid system, it features specialized receptors that alter the ways in which your neurons communicate once stimulated by cannabinoids.
Some cannabinoids are good for treating pain, while others are good for reducing the intraocular pressure that accompanies glaucoma.
Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the most famous cannabinoid. While THC provides a plethora of medicinal benefits, it is the primary psychoactive component of cannabis.
Other important cannabinoids include cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabinol (CBN). These are less psychoactive than THC, and are primarily of interest for their medicinal properties.
While raw cannabis contains varying amounts of these and other cannabinoids, prepared medications and other products frequently contain a small subset of the cannabinoids present in a raw, whole-plant sample. This allows for the targeted treatment of disease and reduces undesirable side effects.
The goal is to treat your dog’s pain or discomfort, not to get her stoned.
Some of the most important benefits of different cannabinoids (for humans) include:
Even though a growing number of pet owners are experimenting with canine cannabis, the plant’s legal status prevents most veterinarians from recommending its use.
Even in states that have legalized recreational cannabis, veterinarians may suffer legal consequences from recommending or prescribing cannabis for their patients.
This complicates the situation for many dog owners. On the one hand, cannabis may help improve your dog’s health, but on the other hand, it may be dangerous for your dog.
This is a clear case in which veterinary advice is crucial, and yet unattainable for most people.
Some sympathetic veterinarians try to thread this needle by speaking in generalities or otherwise tap-dancing around the law, but many others are (understandably) reticent to do so.
Fortunately, some states are considering changing the laws relating to the veterinary use of cannabis, which may help shed more light on the entire issue.
Some of the ailments that people treat with cannabis are the same ones that owners are now using to treat their dogs. A few common examples include:
Despite the federal prohibition on cannabis and cannabis-derived products, there are several ostensibly legal products on the market that contain cannabis derivatives.
The difference is, these products are often made from hemp – a non-psychoactive form of the plant.
Unlike cannabis grown for recreational human use, hemp contains very little THC. Instead, hemp has been selectively bred for its long fibers, which are used in a number of industrial contexts. The plant and seeds are also incorporated into some animal feeds.
However, while hemp does not contain THC, it does contain other cannabinoids, including some with medicinal value. Accordingly, manufacturers have begun marketing hemp-derived products to treat dog ailments and promote health.
There are also a few different lines of CBD oil-infused dog treats – such as HonestPaws – designed to alleviate canine pain and even allergies.
However, these products are subject to very little oversight, and it is difficult to determine the cannabinoid content therein. This makes these items of questionable value for medicinal use at this time. Still, there are plenty of owners who will tell anecdotes about their pooches’ aches and pains being resolved through the use of these hemp or CBD-oil infused treats, so it may be worth a try for desperate owners.
Hopefully, with further research and better regulatory mechanisms in place, these items may one day prove consistently useful in helping to treat ailing animals.
Cannabis represents an intriguing option for the treatment of some illnesses and ailments that afflict dogs. However, such use remains illegal and is rarely guided by sound medical advice.
Nevertheless, some people have used cannabis to treat their dog’s illness, with seemingly positive results. This does not prove that cannabis is a viable treatment option, as dog owners are subject to the placebo effect and wide spread trials are needed to assess how cannabis affects dogs differently. Quite simply, much more research is needed.
If your dog is battling a difficult-to-treat condition, and you are interested in using canine cannabis to treat her, discuss the issue with your veterinarian. While your vet may not be comfortable recommending cannabis for your pet, he or she may be able to provide important information that will inform your decision.
Have you ever treated your dog with cannabis? What were your experiences? We’d love to hear from you in the comment section below.
Disclaimer: Cannabis (both medical and recreational use) is not legal in many countries and only currently legal in some states within the US. This article is for informational purposes only. Please always keep to the regional laws in your state or country regarding this matter.
Ben is a proud dog owner and lifelong environmental educator who writes about animals, outdoor recreation, science, and environmental issues. He lives with his beautiful wife and spoiled-rotten Rottweiler JB in Atlanta, Georgia. Read more by Ben at FootstepsInTheForest.com.