Cannabis use and pets
As cannabis-derived products have become more available, veterinarians have seen increased interest among clients in using these products for their pets. These clients understandably are asking, “Are these products legal, safe, and effective for treating medical conditions in animals?” Our FAQs on the regulatory status of cannabis, cannabis-derived, and cannabis-related products can help you understand the legal landscape.
For a detailed guide to cannabis and its impact on veterinary medicine, view Cannabis in veterinary medicine.
Safety and efficacy
Under the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, products for which therapeutic claims are made must be approved by the FDA in order to be legally manufactured and marketed. The FDA approval process is the means by which the safety and efficacy of such products is demonstrated. Assurance regarding the efficacy and safety of products is obviously important to veterinarians who are considering whether to use them in the treatment of their patients.
Cannabis-derived products that have been suggested as therapeutic agents for use in animals to-date have not followed the traditional path to FDA approval. Relatedly, although cannabinoids such as CBD appear to hold therapeutic promise in areas such as the treatment of epilepsy and the management of pain and inflammation associated with osteoarthritis, the available scientific evidence pertaining to their use in animals is currently limited. While findings from a few well-controlled studies have been published, much of what we know is related to anecdotal or case reports or has been gleaned from studies related to use in humans, including the study of animal models for that purpose. The AVMA continues to encourage well-controlled clinical research and pursuit of FDA approval by manufacturers of cannabis-derived products so that high-quality products of known safety and efficacy can be made available for veterinarians and their patients.
Also of concern are recent reports of lab analyses indicating that a substantial portion of products currently available on the market are labelled inaccurately with respect to both the identity and amount of active ingredient found within the product.
In July 2019, the AVMA submitted comments to the FDA urging the agency to provide regulatory clarity about expectations for the labeling, safety, and use of cannabis-derived and cannabis-related products. This is critical to assure the safe and appropriate use of these products in animal drugs, food, feed, and food/feed additives. You can read our full comments here.
A single product derived from cannabis has been approved by the FDA for use in people who suffer from seizures related to particular syndromes. That drug can be used in an extralabel manner by veterinarians in accord with the Animal Medicinal Drug Use Clarification Act (AMDUCA).
Veterinary cases of cannabis toxicosis in dogs stem most commonly from exposure to edibles. In these cases, there may be additional toxic ingredients involved – such as chocolate, raisins, or xylitol – which result in a poorer prognosis. Cats may also directly consume the plant material.
There are a wide range of clinical signs that have been associated with cannabis toxicosis. A classic presentation is a depressed or ataxic dog that is dribbling urine. Several deaths have been reported due to cannabis toxicity, and these appear to be the result of associated complications, such as aspiration. If you know or suspect your pet of having been exposed to any form of cannabis please consult your veterinarian immediately.
Federal and state laws regarding cannabis products are complex, and the legal landscape around these products is evolving. We’ve summarized the regulatory landscape surrounding use of these products in Cannabis as drug, food or supplement in veterinary medicine, and also provided an update incorporating additional information published by federal agencies.
In January 2021, the USDA published the final rule regulating the production of hemp in the U.S. Key provisions of the final rule include licensing requirement and procedures for testing the THC concentration levels for hemp to support the growth of hemp of known chemical consistency so that CBD products derived from such hemp are also of known chemical consistency.
Cannabis for cats and dogs
In late 2019, Rachel Feldman returned home from work to find that her 14-year-old dog Foxie had trouble getting up. She was dragging her leg around in obvious pain. It turned out to be bone cancer.
Feldman gave Foxie the pain relievers prescribed by her veterinarian, but they weren’t enough. Then, she had an idea: If products containing CBD (cannabidiol), derived from cannabis, were being used to manage pain in people, perhaps they might help her dog. She mixed drops of hemp-based oils she found at her local natural foods store into Foxie’s food. After several tries, Feldman discovered a product and dose that worked: During the final weeks of her life, Foxie was able to go out and play in the snow.
“She lit up for a while and would frolic around in the yard,” says Feldman, director of sustainer strategies at the Humane Society of the United States. “She probably got an extra month of good time with us.”
With the loosening of cannabis laws, more pet owners and veterinarians are using products containing CBD to alleviate pain, decrease anxiety, relieve gastrointestinal issues and reduce seizures in dogs and cats. At the same time, companies are marketing an array of items with CBD—not to be confused with THC, the psychoactive part of cannabis that gets people high. Stores carry oils, tinctures, treats and even hemp-infused peanut butter for pets, leaving many owners wondering what’s real and what’s hype.
“Can CBD help pets? The short answer is, ‘Yes,’” says Dr. Gary Richter, who gave a webinar on the topic to members of the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association. Richter has seen dogs with chronic arthritis pain, who got no relief from anti-inflammatory medications, walking around more comfortably within a few days of starting CBD. “Not every animal responds to it dramatically,” he says. “This is no panacea. But cannabis is an amazing option.”
Dr. Nicholas Dodman, a veterinary behaviorist and HSVMA Massachusetts state representative, did a survey through his nonprofit Center for Canine Behavior Studies that found half of participating pet owners had used CBD products and the majority were satisfied. “CBD does work; it is safe,” Dodman says. “I guess I would regard it as a breakthrough.”
This is no panacea. But cannabis is an amazing option.
Dr. Gary Richter, Veterinary Cannabis Society
Both Richter and Dodman caution that pet owners should consult their veterinarians before using CBD or any over-the-counter supplement. CBD is sometimes mistakenly used not to manage cancer pain but as a cancer treatment, which it isn’t. Also, putting pets on CBD for pain too quickly could mask the underlying problem.
Whether your veterinarian will talk to you about CBD may depend on where you live. A 2018 federal law allows stores to sell hemp products that contain CBD and less than 0.3% THC, but these sales remain restricted in some states that don’t allow medical or recreational use of marijuana. In some states, vets can be penalized for even discussing CBD products with clients.
Fortunately, that’s starting to change. California’s veterinary medical board once tried to prevent vets from even talking about CBD, but it now allows them to discuss it as a treatment option. Colorado’s veterinary medical board goes further, permitting vets to recommend specific products and dosages, while a recently enacted law in Nevada allows veterinarians to both recommend and administer hemp and cannabidiol products.
Allowing vets to discuss and recommend CBD products is crucial, says Richter. “Pet owners are coming to veterinarians for advice. Telling someone to go to the dispensary and buy cannabis is a bit like me saying, ‘Go the pharmacy and pick out an antibiotic and take some.’ ”
Currently, CBD products for pets are sold as over-the-counter supplements, without approval or regulation from the Food and Drug Administration Center for Veterinary Medicine. Quality can vary; unless pet owners look at lab test results, they won’t know how much CBD a product actually contains. Some have none, says Dodman. A 2021 study by Leafreport.com, an industry website, found that more than half of CBD products were inaccurately labeled; most of those contained more CBD than claimed. Recognizing the need for pet owners and vets to be able to rely on the quality of CBD products, Richter co-founded the Veterinary Cannabis Society to educate vets and improve industry standards.