Animals

Doobies for Dogs: Why Pet Owners Are Buying Weed

Demand for medical marijuana is at an all-time high, and that includes pet owners hoping to give their dogs cannabis or hemp-based products.

<p>Gary Richter<span></span></p>

Gary Richter, voted one of America's Favorite Veterinarians last year by the American Veterinary Medical Foundation, believes that medical marijuana is reducing his 14-year-old Shih Tzu's seizures. His dog Leo's problem began five years ago following an attack by another dog. Leo (pictured above) sustained a broken jaw that was repaired after two surgeries, but probable brain trauma led to frequent seizures.

Richter, the owner and medical director of California-based Montclair Veterinary Hospital and Holistic Veterinary Care, at first put Leo on a traditional anti-seizure drug, but there was little improvement. As an integrative practice veterinarian, Richter also put Leo on a basic herbal formula. Again, the results were unremarkable.

Richter has a card permitting his legal purchase of medical marijuana in California, so he got an idea."As soon as I started working with medical cannabis, I knew Leo was going to be one of my first patients," he told Seeker. "I began him on high CBD cannabis oil."

CBD refers to cannabidiol, an active component of cannabis. Richter reports that the results were dramatic. Leo went from suffering several seizures a week to only a few per month.

"Overall, Leo's seizures are not greatly impacting his quality of life and the cannabis oil is helping with his general body soreness as well," Richter said. "At the end of the day, he is still a 14-year-old dog and my goal is to promote and maintain his quality of life. The cannabis is helping me do this and allowing Leo's golden years to be lived in comfort."

Photo: Ellie, a dog whose owner gives her cannabis oil to treat seizures. Credit: Gary Richter

Marijuana remains illegal in many states, where possession of it can lead to felony or misdemeanor offenses. Veterinarians in all states are prohibited from prescribing medical marijuana, yet owners like Richter are allowed to administer cannabis to their animals.

But times are changing.

Recreational marijuana use is already legal in Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska, while related issues are on the 2016 ballot in another four states: Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada and Richter's home state of California. At the federal level, cannabis is a DEA Schedule 1 drug, meaning there is "no currently accepted medical use (due to) a high potential for abuse," but legislation pending in Congress could reclassify it following further evaluation.

In the meantime, veterinary nurse Kate Scott and her colleagues at VETCBD are working hard to keep up with demand for their pet cannabis product sold at California medical marijuana dispensaries.

Scott explained to Seeker, "CBD is non-psychoactive and does not produce a high. Ours comes from cannabis that is organically grown right here in California." She gives it to her own dog ZeeZee and agrees with Richter that it can treat seizures, as well as pain, anxiety, gastrointestinal disorders, certain symptoms associated with cancer and more.

Photo: Ella, a cat receiving cannabis oil for gastrointestinal distress. Credit: Gary Richter

"I've been in veterinary medicine for over 10 years, including several years in emergency critical care," Scott said. "Prescription medicines come with a lot of scary side effects. Our olive oil-containing CBD product offers a more natural approach."

One of the related legal issues now has to do with levels of yet another compound known by a three letter acronym: THC, which stands for tetrahydrocannabinol. It is the primary mind-altering component of cannabis. When the plant is grown for its fiber and other non-psychoactive uses, it is commonly called hemp.

Pet treats made from hemp that contain CBD, but less than .3 percent THC, can be sold at any pet store or online. Heidi Hill, a homeopathist and the owner of Holistic Hound pet store in Berkeley, offers a line of such treats made with hemp organically grown in Colorado.

"I don't smoke pot," Hill told Seeker. "It is also out of my comfort zone to give pets THC-containing products. Animals are very sensitive to it."

"But I have observed how the CBD treats have helped multiple animals, including cats," she added, before whipping out a long list of testimonials from enthusiastic clients. Hill fed her own dog Pearl the treats after the canine was diagnosed with Cushing's disease, and said they improved Pearl's appetite and quality of life.

Ahna Brutlag, a board-certified veterinary toxicologist at the Pet Poison Helpline, agrees with Hill that pets should not be exposed to THC.

"We continue to receive more and more calls about pets getting into their owner's marijuana," Brutlag told Seeker. "In fact, over the past six years, we've had a 448 percent increase. The biggest shift, for us, has been the source of marijuana to which pets are exposed."

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She explained that the rising use of "medibles," edible marijuana products made for humans and not pets, pose one of the biggest dangers. They often contain chocolate, which adds an extra risk for poisoning, especially in dogs and cats. Smoking, as opposed to vaping, medical marijuana can cause problems too if the owner does this around their pet. Birds and cats can, in particular, be very sensitive to the smoke, Brutlag said.

Owners of pet pigs, rabbits, ferrets, horses, and even a kinkajou that chowed down on her caretaker's marijuana-laced brownies have all placed frantic calls to the Helpline. Symptoms vary from the animal appearing drunk to experiencing dangerously high heart rates.

"Remember that medical marijuana [meant and dosed for humans] is a medication and, like all meds, should be kept well out of reach of pets and children," she said. "Pets are opportunistic, indiscriminate eaters, so if you leave something tasty in their vicinity, don't be surprised if they eat it -- all of it."

"One of the biggest concerns with pets ingesting marijuana-laced foods is that they don't just stop with one brownie; they'll eat as many brownies as possible. This can result in serious and potentially life-threatening overdoses."

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