Marijuana use was recently legalized in Colorado, making the drug’s household presence a common occurrence. As marijuana has become more accessible across the country, pets have increasingly been affected. In fact, the Animal Poison Control Center reported a 765 percent increase in calls about pets ingesting marijuana in 2019, compared with the same period the previous year. Our team at Mountain Legacy Veterinary Center would like to provide information about marijuana, and how your pet could be affected.

Terminology pet owners need to know

Several terms are used when discussing marijuana-associated plants and products, and if you don’t understand the differences, they can be confusing. These terms include:

  • Cannabis — A plant family that includes marijuana and hemp. Cannabis plants contain psychoactive and non-psychoactive chemical compounds, also known as cannabinoids.
  • Marijuana — A cannabis plant that has high delta 9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) levels. The dried leaves and flowers are usually smoked.
  • Hashish — The dried marijuana resin is mixed with tobacco and smoked, or added to foods and baked goods.
  • Hemp — A cannabis plant that has low THC levels, and high cannabidiol (CBD) levels. The stalks can be used to make products such as fabric, rope, and paper.
  • THC — 9 tetrahydrocannabinol is the cannabinoid that causes the high feeling when marijuana is used.
  • CBD — Cannabidiol is a cannabinoid that does not have psychoactive effects. Many CBD products are available, and are touted to have several health benefits.

How do cannabinoids affect pets?

Humans and animals have a complex cell-signaling system called the endocannabinoid system (ECS). Cannabinoids interact with this system, but the ECS also has other functions, including regulation of numerous processes, including sleep, mood, appetite, memory, and reproduction. The endocannabinoid system involves three core components:

  • Endocannabinoids — Endogenous cannabinoids are produced by the body. The two main endocannabinoids are:
    • Anandamide (AEA) — Known as the “bliss molecule,” this endocannabinoid contributes to growth during development, and helps modulate stress during adulthood.
    • 2-arahidonoyglyerol (2-AG) — This endocannabinoid regulates appetite, metabolism, anxiety, and pain.
  • Endocannabinoid receptors — The endocannabinoids bind to receptors throughout the body to stimulate a response. 
    • CB1 receptors — These are found mostly in the central nervous system.
    • CB2 receptors — These are found mostly in the peripheral nervous system and immune cells.
  • Enzymes — Enzymes are responsible for breaking down endocannabinoids after they have performed their function.
    • Fatty acid amide hydrolase — This enzyme breaks down AEA.
    • Monoacylglycerol acid lipase — This enzyme breaks down 2-AG.

How does marijuana affect pets?

Dogs are more commonly affected by marijuana toxicity than cats. Pets are most commonly poisoned by ingesting baked goods containing the drug, and can also be poisoned by eating the actual plant, inhaling the smoke, or consuming hashish oil. When inhaled or ingested, THC enters the body and signals neurons to release neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, and acetylcholine. The increased circulating neurotransmitters result in the clinical manifestations. Dogs typically are more severely affected than humans, and signs usually occur about 30 minutes to one hour after ingestion—sooner if the drug was inhaled. Because THC is stored in the body’s fat deposits, the drug’s effects can last for several days. Signs include:

  • Lethargy
  • Dilated pupils
  • Urinary incontinence
  • Vomiting
  • Tremors
  • Agitation

How is marijuana toxicosis in pets treated?

Marijuana toxicosis is rarely deadly in pets, but you should always seek veterinary support, because many cases entail dogs ingesting baked goods that contain chocolate or xylitol, which are also toxic to dogs. Also, marijuana’s potency varies among products, and the amount in edibles is not regulated. Veterinarians are not obligated to report incidents involving recreational drugs to local authorities, so you should be completely honest about what your pet has ingested, to allow our veterinary professionals to provide the appropriate treatment. Treatment involves:

  • Induced vomiting — If less than 30 minutes has passed since ingestion, vomiting can be induced. However, once signs are exhibited, the drug inhibits nausea, making inducing vomiting difficult.
  • Activated charcoal — This is a thick liquid material given orally that traps toxins as the substance passes through the gastrointestinal tract. 
  • Intravenous fluids — Fluid therapy to help flush out the toxin can be useful.
  • Intralipid therapy — In severe cases, a lipid infusion is administered, to help bind the marijuana and allow elimination from the body.

What about medical cannabis products for pets?

Several products are commercially available that advertise health benefits for pets. Reasons to be cautious about these products include:

  • Legality — According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, “under current federal and state law, veterinarians may not administer, dispense, prescribe, or recommend cannabis or cannabis products for animals.” The laws that legalize cannabis use for humans do not extend to pets. 
  • Approval — The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) does not recognize these products as legal, and their manufacturers are not required to show that they are effective. They are also not required to contain the amount of active ingredient they claim. 
  • Dosage — Since little research has involved cannabis use in pets, proper dosages and regimens for pets are unknown.

Preventing your pet from ingesting or inhaling marijuana products is the best way to safeguard them from toxicosis. If your pet is affected by marijuana toxicosis, do not hesitate to contact our team at Mountain Legacy Veterinary Center, so we can provide the care they need.