Pets aren’t getting stoned more, or less, than they did before recreational cannabis became legal earlier this year in California.

For several years, calls to animal poison control centers about pets accidentally ingesting marijuana — typically when the drug is used as an ingredient in food — have been on the rise.

But that hasn’t changed since Jan. 1, when recreational sales became legal in California, according to new data. Overall, the percentage of calls about marijuana and pets, as a fraction of all poison center calls, has held at a relatively low level. And at least one agency says cannabis-related calls have actually dropped so far this year in California.

“Our cases have increased over the past few years, and veterinarians across the country have indicated an increase in the number of cases they are seeing,” said Dr. Tina Wismer, medical director of the Animal Poison Control Center at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

“However, when compared to chocolate or ibuprofen, the case numbers are still small.”

Luke Byerly guides his beagle, Robbie, as the dog eats his food treated with CBD oil during a break at Byerly’s job as a technician at a veterinary clinic in Denver on Oct. 30, 2017. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

The ASPCA’s poison control center took 325 marijuana-related calls from California in 2017 — up from 132 in 2015. But the agency’s total volume of calls also increased during that time, with cannabis incidents consistently accounting for around one in five calls from California.

This year, the ASPCA says it’s responded to 94 calls for cannabis ingestion in California, which is 19.4 percent of statewide calls.

The Pet Poison Helpline answered 57 marijuana-related calls from Californians in 2017 — down from 65 in 2015. And cannabis has been the cause for fewer than 2 percent of all calls in the state going back to 2011.

“One reason we may not see a spike in cases after 2016 is that, by now, especially in California, most vets are used to managing marijuana exposures in pets,” said Dr. Ahna Brutlag, a veterinary toxicologist who oversees veterinary services for the Minnesota-based Pet Poison Helpline.

“(They) do not need to consult with us for help as much as they once did.”

Still, Brutlag said, her national agency continues to take calls about pets “getting into” their owner’s marijuana.

How it happens

There are occasional tales of dogs eating a joint found on the street, or of people giving pets too much weed in an attempt to medicate them. But both poison control centers said most calls come after a pet has eaten marijuana products that owners have left out at home.

“The biggest shift, for us, has been the source of marijuana to which pets are exposed,” Brutlag said.

As recently as five years ago, she said, most of the center’s consultations involved pets who’d eaten dried marijuana buds. Today, Brutlag said, 66 percent of cases involve pets eating cannabis-infused edibles.

Brownies are the top source of pet marijuana exposure, according to the Pet Poison Helpline. These incidents pose an additional risk for dogs and cats, Brutlag said, because a key brownie ingredient — chocolate — can be toxic for some animals.

Overall, dogs are more likely to get into edibles than cats, Wismer said, though plant material can be intriguing to both species.

What happens next?

Most of the time, Wismer said, pets that have ingested marijuana might stumble when they walk, act tired and randomly urinate; though, conversely, she said about one in four pets will appear to be stimulated by cannabis. Some pets also can register abnormally low heart rates, dilated pupils and tremors. In severe cases, pets can become comatose.

The amount of marijuana ingested, the potency of the cannabis, and the size of the pet all factor into the question of whether an animal should be taken to a veterinarian, Wismer said.

Generally, pets that can walk on their own can be kept home in a safe, quiet space, Wismer said, though owners should still check on them frequently.

If an animal can’t walk, or is comatose, Wismer said they need to see a veterinarian immediately.

Vets might induce vomiting from a pet if they believe the cannabis hasn’t yet entered their blood system. They might use medicine to regulate the animal’s heart rate and calm anxiety. If the pet seems dehydrated, the vet might administer intravenous fluids. And until the pet appears to have recovered, it usually will be kept in a quiet, confined area for routine observation.

How to keep pets safe

To prevent accidents, there are special lock boxes on the market to keep cannabis away from both children and pets.

Simply put, Wismer said, “The best thing pet owners can do at this point is keep anything containing marijuana out of reach of pets, just as they should with other toxins.”

There are a growing number of cannabis products that are being made for pets, with owners adamant that the infused treats calm animal anxiety, ease allergies, treat arthritis and more. Most of these products only contain CBD, the chemical in cannabis thought to have the most medicinal properties, and not THC, the chemical that makes consumers high.

Registered Veterinary Technician Liz Hughston of San Jose, right, and her husband Tom Hughston, left, give their dogs Treatibles cannabis treats at their home in San Jose, Calif. on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2016. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

But Wismer said her center has had calls for animals acting impaired after eating products that were said to only contain CBD. Since the products aren’t regulated, she said it could simply have been a quality control issue.

That should improve soon for products sold in licensed California marijuana stores, since they will be allowed to sell products that have been tested and labeled after July 1. But many pet CBD products are sold online, with cloudy federal policies about items that don’t contain THC.

There’s research being done on this area now, including a study at Colorado State University. But Wismer said more trials are needed on how to properly dose cannabis products for animals and on long-term effects.

“At this point,” she said, “the evidence that exists is mostly anecdotal and there are more questions than answers on safety and effectiveness.”

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