Let’s Be Blunt—Cannabis Intoxication in Dogs and Cats
Whether you call it marijuana, weed, pot, Mary Jane, ganja, chronic, etc., we are all familiar with cannabis. The term “cannabis” typically refers to the flower of the Cannabis sativa plant, and the products derived therefrom. It has been used as an herbal medicine for at least 2,500 years. In recent years, its popularity has increased significantly, both as a recreational drug and as a medication. Cannabis is currently used to treat disorders ranging from chronic pain to PTSD to nausea, and even seizures.
A Brief Overview and History of Cannabis
The substances responsible for the variety of effects of cannabis are known as cannabinoids. Almost 500 different cannabinoids have been identified, each with different effects. These substances interact with a wide variety of cells in the body, from brain cells to muscle cells, cells in the GI tract, and even immune cells. The most well-known of the cannabinoids are THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (Cannabidiol).
CBD is not considered recreational and is used for its medicinal properties. There are a number of CBD products currently on the market for both humans and pets. These products are not the subject of this blog post, but please be aware—whether you are using a CBD product for yourself or a furry member of your family—there is currently little to no governmental oversight for the manufacture of CBD products, no required testing, etc. So this industry is truly buyer-beware.
Cannabis was made illegal in the US first in 1911. Then, in 1970, it was listed in the Controlled Substance Act at the highest level of restriction, meaning that it had no accepted medical use. However, in the last 30 years, attitudes have started to change and a number of states have begun to legalize both medical and recreational use of Cannabis. As it has become more accepted, and more widely available, exposure of pets to THC has been an increasing problem.
Pet Exposure and Reactions to Cannabis
Pets do not process THC in the same way that humans do, and exposure in dogs or cats is considered a true toxicity. Most cases of cannabis toxicity involve accidental ingestion of cannabis flower or edible products, most commonly by dogs. However, other types of exposure can also affect pets, including second-hand smoke. THC is stored in fat deposits, meaning that the effects of this toxicity can last for several days.
Symptoms of cannabis toxicity typically begin 30-90 minutes after exposure. Typical symptoms of intoxication include incoordination, listlessness, dilated pupils, and urine dribbling. Heart rate can slow significantly, and many pets will show a characteristic “startle reaction” where they seem drowsy or sedate, but can be easily startled and seem to over-react to stimuli.
These and similar symptoms can be observed with neurological illness and with other types of toxicities, including antifreeze poisoning (which is fatal if not diagnosed early). So it is always best to have your pet evaluated immediately if you notice any of these signs.
Treatment for Cannabis Toxicity in Pets
It is very important that you provide your veterinarian with all relevant exposure information, including any chemicals, toxins, medications, or recreational drugs that your pet could have been exposed to. This information is vital to your veterinarian being able to make the correct diagnosis and determine the best treatment plan.
Veterinarians are NOT obligated to report anything to the police. We are far more interested in making sure that we are treating your pet for the correct problem, and much of the time that is made significantly harder if owners are not being honest about medicinal or recreational drug use.
Treatment recommendations will vary depending on a number of factors, such as when the ingestion occurred, the amount ingested, the severity of symptoms, and what other substances may have been ingested at the same time. (For example, edible cannabis products may contain ingredients such as chocolate which can pose additional risks to the patient).
If ingestion has occurred within roughly 30 minutes, we may be able to induce vomiting to aid in decontamination. However, once effects are seen, inducing vomiting is not typically useful as the anti-nausea properties of cannabis create resistance to vomiting. In addition, patients who are sedate from cannabis are much more likely to aspirate, leading to even greater problems.
In mild cases, patients may just need careful observation to prevent injury, such as falling off a couch or down the stairs, until the effects wear off. However, more significant intoxications may require interventions such as IV fluids, heat support, etc. For patients who have lost consciousness, much more intensive support may be required. The chance of a fatal intoxication from cannabis is low, but it is possible, especially in smaller patients.
Prevention of Cannabis Intoxication in Pets
Unfortunately, we have seen a drastic increase in cannabis toxicity in pets since the use of medical marijuana was approved in Florida in 2016. On the other hand, these toxicities are, fortunately, rarely fatal. They are, however, unpleasant for the pet involved, and may incur significant cost to owners.
So for all those who use cannabis medically or recreationally, we would ask that you treat your marijuana like other medications and ensure to keep it securely away from your pet. If you suspect that your pet may have ingested cannabis or may be showing signs of cannabis intoxication, please call our office immediately at 727-822-8501.