Vets see spike in overdosed pets as marijuana legalization spreads

When Carol came home from work on a rainy night last year, she found her beloved dog lying on the kitchen floor, unconscious and barely breathing. She rushed him to an emergency vet hospital, trying not to think the worst.

Emergency workers quickly assessed the dog and began asking questions. Had he ever suffered seizures? Had he been ill? Could he have gotten into any poisons or anything else he shouldn’t have? With that question, her heart sank.

Carol, who asked that her last name be withheld because she doesn’t want her employer to know, had recently purchased some recreational marijuana. She suddenly recalled seeing the empty Altoids tin that she kept the pot in lying near her dog.

Carol told the emergency workers and they sprung into action, trying to counter the effects of the cannabis. It was a long night, but eventually the dog came out of his coma, and after a couple of days in the hospital, he was back on his feet.

Carol’s frightening story reflects an unforeseen consequence of marijuana legalization — the accidental poisoning of pets who consume their owners’ pot.

“I have friends who will sometimes see five to 10 patients a day,” says Ken Pawlowski, past president of the California Veterinary Medical Association. “There’s a study out of Colorado that shows a four-fold increase in cannabis-related cases, and much of that is ascribed to pets getting into their owners’ stash.”

JustAnswer.com, a web site that allows people to chat online with experts, reports that the number of questions it has received related to marijuana and pets has gone up by 65 percent nationally. In California, the questions from January through July this year increased by 73 percent, over the same time frame in 2016.

Most of the requests for information asked about what to do if a dog or cat had consumed marijuana, and most of those involved dogs.

The veterinary community has long known that cannabis — specifically the chemical THC that gives users their high — is toxic to pets. Dogs appear to be even more susceptible, Pawlowski says, because they have more cannabinoid receptors.

A dog wears a marijuana sticker during a pro-marijuana gathering in Portsmouth on the South coast of England. (Photo by Sion Touhig / Getty Images)

However, veterinarians and researchers can’t determine the level of toxicity because cannabis still is listed as a Class 1 drug, which restricts its use even by researchers. What they do know is that cannabis can damage the neurological system in pets and can sometimes be fatal, and they fear they are just seeing the start of the problems.

“We anticipate seeing a lot more cases” Pawlowski says, once possession of recreational cannabis becomes fully legal in the state next year.

Kevin D. Lazarcheff, a veterinarian who has been practicing emergency medicine in the Fresno area for the past 12 year and is president of the California Veterinary Medical Association, says that vets already are seeing an increase in the number and severity of cases coming into the emergency room, but not all of them involve pets that got into their owner’s stash.

“The great majority of these are accidental intoxications associated with dogs ingesting the various products,” Lazarcheff says. “However, recently we have seen some intoxications associated with the purposeful use of the ‘low THC’ cannabinoid or CBD products.”

The market is booming for so-called pot for pets products, many made from hemp, because it contains only minute traces of THC and purportedly can treat certain pets ailments. These products boast of the benefits of CBD — cannabidiol, a cannabis compound that doesn’t include any of the intoxicating qualities.

Dr. Roy Cruzen, a semi-retired veterinarian who works with JustAnswer.com, says there is anecdotal evidence that CBD might be a benefit to animals and humans alike in treating conditions such as pain from arthritis and for anxiety.  Consumers can’t be certain of what they are buying, however, because of a lack of testing and no industry standards.

Pawlowski is concerned about the proliferation of the pot for pets products because there is no oversight. A company can claim that it has less than 3 percent THC in its product, and the consumer just has to trust that claim. Plus, no research has been done to determine dosing based on an animal’s weight or breed.

“It’s the wild west out there,” Pawlowski says. “Honestly, some people are just making it up.”

There also is a concern, Pawlowski says, that the general public doesn’t differentiate between low THC products and human marijuana. For example, a friend’s testament that his dog’s arthritis improved after taking a CBD product might prompt an owner to give his dog his own marijuana, not realizing the difference.

Cruzen says some vets might have a private conversation with their clients about the products, but if they were to recommend the use of CBD or any cannabis products, they could get in trouble with the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, which could lead to the loss of their license.

Meanwhile, pet owners can be caught in an information gap, left to decide on their own what they should be doing.

The general lack of warning to pet owners about the dangers of cannabis for their pets also is a problem. Carol says she had no idea that her occasional use of marijuana would almost kill her dog.

And if that wasn’t enough to worry the pet owner, there are hidden dangers unrelated to the cannabis.

“Brownies,” Cruzen says, “are the double whammy. And if they’re made with Xylitol, it’s a trifecta.”

Chocolate is toxic to dogs, and Xylitol, a common sugar substitute often found in sugar-free gum and toothpaste, can kill a dog within 30 minutes. Some of the cannabis edibles for humans also are made with Xylitol, Cruzen says, because it gives them a more stable shelf life.

Dog owners also should be careful to keep their pets away from marijuana cigarette butts or edibles that are discarded at beaches, parks and trails. Cruzen also warns about human feces, which dogs have been known to eat. Consumed cannabis does not get metabolized as it passes through the digestive system, and is expelled in the feces.

With all the risks associated with pets and cannabis, the vets say, its better to play it safe and keep it far away from your pets.

What to do if you pet consumes cannabis:

  • If your dog is unconscious, having seizures or difficulty breathing, seek emergency care immediately.
  • If you get to your pet within 20 to 30 minutes after ingestion, induce vomiting with 3 percent hydrogen peroxide. Administer 1 teaspoon for every 5 pounds of body weight, with a maximum dose of 3 tablespoons.
  • Repeat the dose in 10 to 15 minutes, if necessary.
  • If the dog is unresponsive, do not try to induce vomiting, but get the dog to an emergency clinic immediately.

To read more from our special section on Pot & Pets, click here.


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