If, like me, your knowledge of pets plus pot ended in high school with your dumb cousins blowing second-hand smoke into their dog's ears, prepare to recalibrate. Animals, ranging from the fluffy to the scaly to the cloven-hooved, represent the newest market for medical cannabis. In October the New York Times featured a photo slideshow of pets that had been treated with cannabis tinctures. And while it's impossible not to snicker at the portraits of a sleepy-eyed cat, bug-eyed terrier and spaced-out turtle, these patients aren't getting high, they're getting better.
"My dog Lula is wrought with problems," says Nora Mounce (in the interest of full disclosure, Mounce is also an occasional Journal contributor.) "She has chronic hyperparathyroidism ... the disease has exacerbated the aging process. She has severe muscle loss in her hind legs, cloudy cataracts and wicked anxiety."
Last fall, when Lula was having a bad week and not eating, Mounce almost canceled a trip out of town. She called the suggestion of cannabidiol (CBD) medications a "lightbulb moment." Within a week, Lula was back to regular meals.
Allison Ettel, founder of Treatwell, which produces the medicine Mounce used, says her company began making CBD tinctures for pets about 10 years ago. Treatwell sources its cannabis from Southern Humboldt.
"I have seen better results with animals than with humans," claims Ettel, clarifying that CBD tinctures are not the same as pot butter or hemp, which are contraindicted for use in animals. CBD compounds work in conjunction with tetrahydrocannabinol, the stoney part of the chemical equation, administering results through what's known as the "entourage" effect, but most pet meds are low on THC.
"We do not believe in pure THC for dogs," says Ettel, adding that most cases of pot toxicity in animals involve dogs accidentally getting into their owner's stash.
Ettel's company is currently recruiting livestock and exotic pet owners for free treatment as it refines its products.
How to obtain CBD medicines for pets, and how they're prescribed, remains murky. Many dispensaries carry pet products, and their workers offer advice on administering tinctures, which are often mixed with salmon oil. (Doggie biscuits are less common than they once were because many patients already have low appetites.) But veterinarians cannot currently prescribe or offer advice on CBD compounds without risking their licenses due to the federal scheduling of marijuana. So is having non-professionals give veterinary advice ethical?
"Pets can't give consent for any medication we give them," says Kate Scott, a registered veterinary technician with VetCBD, another medical cannabis company. "Pets can't give consent to be spayed or for arthritis medication. Cannabis is a viable medicine for people, why not for pets? They have the same endocannabinoid system as humans."
VetCBD, which was developed by a veterinarian, also bills itself as "non-psychoactive." Its website lists possible applications as arthritis, anxiety, inflammation, nausea, loss of appetite and seizures. Like Treatwell, Scott says her company is also experimenting with other species, specifically equines.
However, as with humans, it can be hard to separate out the effects of different treatments. Jamie Bellerman, of McKinleyville, says his injured boxer-rottweiler Bailey's mobility has improved since he began treating her with a CBD tincture. She is also taking other medications. Because of the unclear nature of cannabis' relationship to traditional veterinary medicine, it may be difficult to get good advice on possible drug interactions. Bellerman was willing to take the risk when he saw Bailey suffering after a failed knee surgery.
"Essentially, how we treat our pets says something about our society," says Bellerman, referencing a recent National Public Radio story about anti-depressants for pets. "I've never been utterly convinced about the efficacy of medical marijuana, but I hear it helps. As a pet owner, and as a Californian, I'm willing to say, OK, give me the drugs. She's doing better now."