Nikita was a Siberian Husky with terminal cancer, and while she was dying, her owner, Dr. Douglas Kramer, tried everything he could to ease her pain. As a vet, he was well versed in the standard medications available to his ailing dog, telling the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA) that he had exhausted every available pharmaceutical option before dosing Nikita with a small amount of marijuana. “At that point, it was a quality of life issue,” he said, “and I felt like I’d try anything to ease her suffering.”
Dr. Kramer himself died of cancer in 2013, but not before establishing a veterinary practice in California specializing in palliative and hospice care, reported to be the first in the US to offer cannabis consultations. In interviews and obituaries, he was hailed as an advocate for pets’ access to medical cannabis and described as a crusader, but Dr. Kramer’s early public statements were circumspect:
“I don’t want to come across as being overly in favor of giving marijuana to pets,” he told JAVMA. “My position is the same as the [American Medical Association’s]. We need to investigate marijuana further to determine whether the case reports I’m hearing are true or whether there’s a placebo effect at work. We also need to know what the risks are.”
Here in Canada, Dr. Carlton Gyles echoes that sentiment. Dr. Gyles is editor of the Canadian Veterinary Journal and a professor emeritus at the University of Guelph. He sees promise in the potential for cannabis-based pet medicine, but he notes that as long as veterinarians’ legal access to marijuana is limited, researchers will have a hard time generating quality data. “This is the key message I really want to get out,” he says, “that if we are to maximize any potential value, then we really need to do the studies so we can be clear about efficacy and toxicity.”
Despite a paucity – or pawcity, if you will – of evidence-based data, a wide variety of cannabis pet products can already be found in dispensaries and online, from hemp-derived CBD dog treats to tinctures promising medical-grade pain relief.
Anecdotal evidence and a limited number of preliminary studies suggest that carefully administered cannabis may prevent dogs’ epileptic seizures and ease pain associated with arthritis and cancer. We spoke with several pet parents who are already administering doses to dogs with these ailments, typically in the form of tinctures and edibles. Most were able to access marijuana through legal medical prescriptions in Canada and select American states.
Hendrix is a 2-year-old standard poodle who lives in San Jose, California with his owner, Gail Barsky. On September 19, 2016, Hendrix suffered from two grand mal seizures. “It was the worst day of my life,” says Barsky. She took Hendrix to the veterinarian, who suggested waiting to see if he had another episode before considering medications like Zonisamide and Phenobarbital. In the meantime, Barsky started researching cannabis.
Initially she gave Hendrix hemp-based CBD products, including Treatibles and Canna-Pet treats, but he was still having small seizures, so she switched to a stronger ingestible CBD oil. Through trial-and-error she eventually settled on a regular daily dose, and now reports that Hendrix has been seizure-free for the last 11 weeks. “I spoke to a regular vet and a veterinary neurologist,” says Barsky, “and while they agree that Hendrix is not having regular seizures, they won't actually come out and say it since legally they can't prescribe it to dogs.”
Sara McAulay lives in Oakland, California with her 4-year-old dog Joyo, and says she’s lucky to have two holistic vets and a number of medical marijuana clinics nearby. Joyo has idiopathic epilepsy, which McAulay treats with CBD-dominant tinctures from Lovingly and Legally Grown, and TreatWell, two brands formulated for pets. She says Joyo’s veterinarians are supportive, and that although cannabis wasn’t enough to completely halt Joyo’s seizures, they were “considerably milder” after starting the tincture. Joyo now takes CBD tincture alongside a low dose of Phenobarbital, and despite occasional mild seizures, competes successfully in agility trials.
Despite these promising examples, dosing without data can be dangerous – deadly even. In an editorial for the Canadian Veterinary Journal, Dr. Gyles warns that Colorado veterinary researchers reported a 4-fold increase in accidental cannabis ingestion cases between 2005 and 2010, correlated with marijuana legalization in that state. Compared with humans, dogs’ brains have more cannabinoid receptors, and at least two of the dogs in the study died after ingesting edibles infused with medical grade THC butter. Whatever potential cannabis may hold for pet medicine, it’s clear that it’s never a good idea to let Fido near your stash. It should also go without saying that blowing smoke – of any kind - in a pet’s face is tantamount to abuse.
Dr. Duncan Lascelles is a professor and pain specialist at the North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine. In an interview with AP, published in The National Post in 2013, he indicated that it could take a decade before veterinarians have clear, research-backed guidelines for cannabis treatment. But for Dr. Kramer, a decade was too long. A few months after his initially cautious statements to the American Veterinary Medical Association, he became bolder, telling AP he was tired of euthanizing pets when he wasn’t doing everything he could to make their lives better. “I felt like I was letting them down,” he said.
For Dr. Gyles, palliative care is currently the only area where pet owners might consider cannabis treatment. “In my own opinion, if an animal is terminally ill, then there is nothing to be lost in trying it when nothing else is available,” he says. “But [pet owners] shouldn’t expect to get it from a veterinarian.”
Featured image via Wikipedia.