Should Medical Marijuana Be Legal For Dogs?

Could medical marijuana be the answer to relieving suffering for thousands of chronically and terminally ill pets, or should this controversial plant medicine be left to the humans? 

Please Note: This article is not an endorsement for medical marijuana use in pets and is only intended to provide pet owners with information on a possible new veterinary therapy.

As the cannabis industry grows, and evidence for the therapeutic benefits of cannabis becomes more widely understood, the veterinary community has also begun considering the use of the cannabis plant for their pet patients. 

Medical Marijuana for Dogs

Marijuana Entering the Sphere of Veterinary Medicine 

Dr. Douglas Kramer, a small animal veterinarian in California, was one of the first veterinarians to begin pioneering the use of medical marijuana for dogs. Before his unfortunate passing in 2013, Dr. Kramer made it his mission to study, advocate for, and provide palliative medical marijuana treatments for pets living with chronic and terminal illnesses. 

Dr. Douglas Kramer and his dog

Dr. Kramer’s work began after watching his Siberian Husky struggle with and eventually lose her battle with cancer. “Nikita was wasting away, and she’d stopped eating,” Dr. Kramer was quoted saying in an article published by the American Veterinary Medical Association. “I’d exhausted every available pharmaceutical pain option, even steroids. At that point, it was a quality of life issue, and I felt like I’d try anything to ease her suffering.” 

“It was a quality of life issue, and I felt like I’d try anything to ease her suffering.” 

Dr. Douglas Kramer, Veterinarian

Using careful precision so as not to overdo the dosage, Dr. Kramer began giving Nikita a very small amount of marijuana, which showed positive results. According to Dr. Kramer, Nikita’s appetite returned, her discomfort was eased, and she was able to enjoy her final months in far less pain thanks to the cannabis. 

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a husky getting treated by Medical Marijuana for Dogs

Following his personal experience with Nikita, Dr. Kramer began his push to bring other veterinarians into the conversation on medical marijuana. Historically, the world of veterinary medicine has been hesitant to even touch the subject, despite the rising need for education on cannabis use near, around, and with animals. “The veterinary community needs to address the issue, but we don’t want to talk about it, even though it’s clear our clients are giving marijuana to their pets, with good and bad effects,” said Dr. Kramer. 

In another 2013 article published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, authors cited anecdotal evidence that marijuana may be effective as an analgesic (pain relieving drug), an appetite stimulant, and an anti-nausea medication in dogs with cancer and osteoarthritis.

According to the article, a senior Labrador Retriever-type dog named Miles was diagnosed with advanced splenic cancer and given 2 months to live. His veterinarian prescribed Tramadol to relieve his pain. But, Miles’ owner, did not like the residual effects of the Tramadol on her dog.

“Every time we gave it to him, he would just sleep; he wouldn’t even move. He’d just lay there like he was dead,” said Miles’ owner.

A dog called Mile, getting treated Medical Marijuana for Dogs

When a friend suggested that she give Miles a tincture of marijuana sold as a pet medicine in legal marijuana dispensaries throughout southern California, the owner tried it, thinking it could not be any worse than the drugs he was already taking. Within an hour of ingesting the medical marijuana, Miles’ appetite was back, he was no longer vomiting and within a couple of weeks, he was running at the beach and back to his old self.

Controversy Surrounding Medical Marijuana For Dogs 

Medical marijuana has been used successfully as an alternative and adjunctive treatment for pain and palliative care in both humans and animals, but without support from the veterinary world, safely administering medical marijuana to pets remains an elusive and generally frowned-upon practice. 

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Medical Marijuana for Dogs

The majority of studies pertaining to canine tolerance to THC focus on toxicity and establishing where the threshold for safe dosage lies. Because canine tolerance to THC is relatively low compared to human THC tolerance, safe dosage requires extreme care, and exceeding the safe threshold can result in hypothermia, lethargy, and ataxia–or a loss of coordination and muscle control. 

However, there are promising studies on canine response to medical marijuana, THC, and other vital cannabinoids that suggest, as Dr. Kramer did, that these compounds could be used to improve quality of life for dogs living with chronic pain, cancer symptoms, and other serious ailments. 

Most promising is the wide adoption of CBD for dogs, which has in part been thanks to the passing of the Farm Bill, which legalized hemp and hemp-derived products with less than 0.3% THC. Legalization has enabled further research into the efficacy of CBD, and today, you can purchase CBD products at most pet stores!

Canine Medical Marijuana Studies

Despite a distinct lack of veterinary knowledge on medical marijuana, there is a slow but growing push for more clinical trials and dedicated studies on the subject. 

Medical Marijuana for Dogs

A recent dissertation published in 2021 at Auburn University showed exciting evidence to suggest that a combination of traditional chemotherapy drugs and cannabinoids (though not including THC) had enhanced cytotoxic (cancer-killing) effects as compared to the chemotherapy drugs alone. The study was performed on canine lymphoma cells, indicating that cannabis could be effective in the treatment of certain cancers. 

Similarly, dogs have been used as test subjects in a variety of experimental trials intended as research toward the advancement of treatments for humans. While the final results may be used to advance human medicine, the promising results of these studies on the anti-cancer, pain relief, and other health benefits of marijuana inevitably add to the argument for further investigation of the topic. 

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How To Avoid Marijuana Toxicity

While the legalization of marijuana and further research into its possible therapeutic effects have been generally positive, there has also been a marked increase in veterinary visits from dogs who have ingested marijuana. Marijuana toxicosis is rarely fatal, but the symptoms can be alarming, uncomfortable, and damaging if not addressed. 

Chart of increasing veterinary visits regarding Medical Marijuana

If you live in a state with legalized medical or recreational marijuana, it is vital to keep any and all cannabis products out of reach of your dogs. Ingestion of human-grade cannabis products could result in toxicosis, and if you find that your dog has consumed cannabis, you should contact a veterinarian immediately. 

The most severe symptoms of marijuana toxicity include seizures, severe lethargy, drooling, and more. Unfortunately, there is no antidote to marijuana toxicity, which can make more serious cases extremely dangerous, and have in some cases led to death. 

For the safety of your dog, keep all marijuana products safely secured out of their reach, and never purposefully give them marijuana products containing THC without the express direction of your veterinarian. 

CBD for Dogs

If you are interested in using cannabinoids to treat pain, nausea, discomfort, anxiety, or anything else your dog is dealing with, consider checking out a CBD dog treat or supplement. Federally legal and lacking the psychoactive properties that give you the “high” associated with cannabis, CBD is completely safe for dogs and known to be beneficial for everything from separation anxiety to arthritis. 

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