Pot For Pets: Marijuana Consumption By Pets At An All-Time High

Vancouver veterinarians warn pet owners of the dangers of accidental marijuana consumption as legalization in Canada approaches.

August 7, 2018

By Sam Nar / Photo: stmed

About a week ago, my family dog accidentally got high, and despite what you might think, it actually wasn’t fun for anyone. It had been a typical hot July evening and our sled-type dog, Ares, had been out enjoying some self-directed playtime under the supervision of my parents. While goofing around in our backyard, our Husky found his way into a green clump which at first glance, resembled the chunks of grass that lawnmowers spew out. As most dog owners can attest to, dogs have a habit of introducing anything remotely new to their mouths and at an alarming pace, to their stomach. By the time my parents stood up from their patio chairs, the messy green wad had already gone down the hatch.

Ares is legendary for his iron stomach, having digested toilet paper, pieces of clothing, buttons, garbage and fallen scraps from the dinner table, so my parents weren’t too concerned at first. But after an hour or so, they knew something was wrong; Ares couldn’t stand, he struggled to keep his eyes open. It looked like he turned into jelly, and it was evident that Ares wasn’t just uncomfortable, he was frightened.

The logical solution would have been to take our dog to the vet, but there was one problem: it was a Sunday evening, and nothing near our home was open. Desperate, my dad, armed with knowledge from intensive Google searches, acted fast: he made a fist and pushed firmly upwards and forwards on Ares’ belly, just behind the rib cage (think the Heimlich maneuver). Luckily, this resulted in him vomiting up a chunk of what the vet would later identify as cannabis (no one in my family smokes—so how that piece of marijuana got there, no one knows).

(Ares, our purebred husky of epic Clifford-the-dog-like proportions the day after he ate recreational marijuana. Photo Credit: Sam Nar)

While I’m happy to report that our dog is back to his usual, adorable self, the truth of it is that he’s not the only dog to accidentally get high. In fact, according to a statement provided by the Pet Poison Helpline earlier this year, phone calls regarding weed ingestion by pets has skyrocketed a whopping 448 percent over the past six years.

While not as extreme, Adrian Walton, lead veterinarian and owner of Dewdney Animal Hospital, suspects Vancouver is looking at rising numbers as well in the recent years. Walton says his Maple Ridge-area clinic sees a couple of cases involving cannabis consumption by pets per month, an increase from the numbers he has seen in the previous years.

The Dewdney clinic isn’t alone; their numbers are matched by Yaletown Pet Hospital which sees “one to two confirmed cases of marijuana intoxication each month” and B.C. SPCA Vancouver Animal Hospital which sees “a handful” a year.

“It’s relatively common for veterinarians to see it [accidental weed consumption by pets],” Walton says, adding that emergency departments may see higher numbers.

He’s right. According to Parmjit Dhillon, a vet at Burrard Animal Hospital, emergency sees five to eight cases, on average, in a week.

This city is no stranger to cannabis, being the home to established medical companies like Invictus and Aurora, the host of internet-famous expos like Lift & Co., and home to notable leaders like Terry Lake, the former B.C. minister of health who joined the fray by becoming VP of Hydropothecary, a homegrown cannabis producer in Quebec. But with legalization of recreational marijuana officially set for October 17, city veterinarians have started exploring what Vancouver’s weed-welcoming society could mean for the safety of house-owned pets in B.C.

“There will be more cases of toxicity,” says Dhillon. “It will happen because once it’s legalized, it is not a hindrance.”

The Dangers of Marijuana

“The problem is that the way we metabolize medications, drugs, and plant materials is different from dogs and cats,” explains Walton. “They can’t break it down, so it stays in their system for a much longer time.” He also notes that differences in dietary habits could prolong the side effects for animals. “It’s part of the reason why Tylenol is a great drug for us, but if you give it to your little Pomeranian, you run the risk of overdosing it.”

Emilia Gordon, senior manager of animal health at B.C. SPCA Vancouver Animal Hospital, agrees with Walton, explaining that human-grade cannabis contains high levels of Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a psychoactive constituent which may give a person a short-term boost (known as trippin’) but may not be so enjoyable for pets.

“They [animals] tend to be much sicker. Sometimes they’ll have seizures, hyperthermia (elevated body temperature). They’re uncoordinated and often leaking urine,” Gordon says. “I’ve never seen it, but there have been deaths recorded from that kind of exposure.”

The majority of the accidental marijuana intoxication cases reported to Dewdney and the B.C.SPCA are about dogs, but cats come in a close second, with animals like bearded dragon lizards and birds the third most likely to be brought in. Other issues that can arise in pets from weed consumption can include vomiting, agitation, excitability, depression and in severe circumstances, marijuana poisoning, and animals aren’t the only ones suffering—their owners’ wallets are too. Gordon and Walton state that medications, injections, and procedures like a simple I.V. fluid, activated charcoal, or inducing vomiting could cost anywhere from $50 up to a few hundred dollars—subject to change depending on the size of the pet.

“Generally, it’s easier to treat things if they’re caught early, which is why we encourage people to at least contact your vet if you think that they’ve [pets] gotten into something,” says Gordon, who’s also quick to note that marijuana isn’t the only type of drug they see. Walton also notes that it’s important to see the animal as soon as possible: there’s a three-hour window after consumption; after that, the vets can only make sure the pet is comfortable.

Potential Alternatives

But despite the stigma around marijuana, not all green is bad. Some medical professionals believe that certain cannabis-derived treatments can better the lives of pets with specific ailments. One of these professionals is Katherine Kramer, medical director at Vancouver Animal Wellness Hospital and versed in the teachings of veterinary acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine, who uses cannabis-derived Cannabidiol (CBD) to help animals recover. “I have definitely seen the benefits for patients with cancer, seizures, chronic pain cases and arthritis. It hasn’t really replaced the conventional medications, but it does seem to work really well.”

Although of the same plant family, CBD, derived from hemp, contains very little to no traces of THC and is meant to help alleviate an animal’s pain rather than get them high. With over 16 years of experience, six of which she’s coupled her expertise with cannabis-derived CBD treatments, Kramer says that she’s only seen good things come from CBD-infused medicine. “It’s really nothing short of a miracle for some patients.”

She recalls a Friday when a Golden Retriever with lymphoma (cancer at the lymph nodes) walked into her clinic, scheduled for euthanasia. In a last-ditch effort, the owner had requested Kramer to administer her cannabis-derived treatment the very same night.

“Honestly, at that point, I didn’t think it was going to do much,” Kramer explains. But she and the owner were met with a nice surprise come the next day. “Her [the owner] dog’s favourite thing to do was grab his leash and take a walk through Stanley Park, but they hadn’t done that for months. Saturday morning, he grabbed his leash and for the first time in months, they went to Stanley Park—that dog lived for another three or four months.”

Aside from her therapeutic methods, Kramer believes that pet-friendly pot alternatives do exist. “I really like Creating Brighter Days. They have a certificate of analysis, so we know what they say is in their products, is in their products.” But she admits that while she sees a positive future for the role of medical marijuana, it’s still important to keep a check on the type of drug that animals receive.

“CBD is very helpful, but THC can be very toxic. It’s getting really difficult to find a safe quality controlled product. It’s such a moneymaking thing and … there’s no quality control over it unless the company is doing it themselves, so you have to be really careful about which products you try with your pet,” Kramer says, echoing Gordon in urging people to refrain from sharing pot made for human consumption with their pets or storing the drugs in a safe place where their pets can’t get to them.

Moving Forward

Kramer says she’s not sure if the upcoming legalization of weed could mean more pets coming into her care—a sentiment shared by Gordon and Walton—but she predicts the number of marijuana ingestion by pets will continue to rise. “Vancouver’s been the number one city in North America for accidental marijuana intoxication, and it’s become more prevalent.”

However, both Kramer and Walton hope that with the topic becoming less taboo, pet owners might be more upfront about having pot that their pets could get into which could speed up diagnoses and treatments. “As a vet … we don’t care [about how you got the weed]. We’re not there to judge you, we’re there to do what we can for the animal,” says Kramer.

In spite of the controversies surrounding this topic, it seems like all B.C. vets and pet owners can agree on one thing: We just want to keep our furry friends safe.

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