Jack, a 15 1/2-year-old Rhodesian ridgeback mix, suffers from a triple whammy: dementia, anxiety and arthritis. So his owner, Liz Hughston, an emergency vet tech in San Jose, gives her senior dog Canna Companion, a hemp-based cannabis capsule for pets, to improve his quality of life.
Meanwhile, Hughston gives Treatibles, a brand of cannabis chews, to her 4-year-old Chihuaha mix to stop him from going into freak-out mode during July 4th fireworks. It worked a lot better than Xanax.
“Augie would act like your worst drunk friend at a bar who picks fights with everyone, Hughston said. “He’d be running around barking at everything, then he’d pass out for an hour. Then we’d have to dose him again.”
After eating Treatibles, the 8-pound dog sits calmly on the sofa with his owners instead of refusing to sleep, eat or let anyone pick him up.
More and more pet owners are turning to cannabis-based products to help their animals with anxiety, arthritis, seizures, cancer and other ailments. One pioneer in the cannabis pet market is Auntie Dolores, an Oakland company that began by making edibles for people. In 2013, it launched Treatibles, blueberry- and pumpkin-flavored hemp chews shaped like dog bones that are sold in pet stores, dispensaries and online.
Unlike human edibles, the pet version has only a tiny fraction of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, said CEO Julianna Carella. Its main ingredient is CBD, another compound — or cannabinoid — in cannabis or hemp that does not make people or animals high, but offers relief from anxiety and pain, she said.
She said she got the idea for the pet products after clients started asking whether it was OK to give their own edibles to their dogs for arthritis. It’s not. Concentrated doses of THC can be toxic in animals, as evidenced by the increasing number of pets who have gotten into their owners stashes and landed in vet emergency rooms. So Carella decided to make something for animals so people wouldn’t dose their pets with unsafe human products.
“We have people using it (on their pets) for separation anxiety, or when they’re going to the vet or groomer,” Carella said. “We’ve also heard from pet owners who used the product in the last weeks and months of their animal’s life that they were much more comfortable and in less pain.”
Under federal law, both CBD and THC are illegal, this is where things get complicated. Because CBD is also found in hemp, which can be legally imported and sold in the U.S., most companies that make pet cannabis products are taking advantage of this loophole. And those don’t require customers to have a medical marijuana card.
Federal regulators haven’t approved cannabis for use in animals, and have sent warning letters to producers who claim health benefits. Even in states like California that have medical and/or recreational marijuana laws, those pertain to humans, not animals.
The California Veterinary Medical Board guidelines say that prescribing or recommending any cannabis to animals is against the law, period, which means anyone who does so risks losing their license. Oakland veterinarian Gary Richter, who does not prescribe cannabis for pet patients because it is illegal, said the prohibitions create an ethical dilemma for practitioners.
“It’s a real quandary because I know from experience that it can be incredibly helpful to pets in ways that no other medicine can be,” Richter said. “But then on the other side the board has made it clear that if you discuss cannabis with clients you do so at your own peril.”
Richter is gathering signatures on a Moveon.Org petition calling for a change in state law to allow for compassionate use of medical cannabis for animals.
Veterinarian Ashley McCaughan, at Creature Comfort Holistic Veterinary Center in Oakland, said she found out about cannabis tinctures — a liquid combination of THC/CBD — for pets from a client who was using it for her cat, who’d just had surgery for intestinal cancer and was on a feeding tube. McCaughan said the TreatWell tincture helped the cat’s appetite, and it lived a lot longer than expected.
“The number of products has exploded but because of the legal ramifications, we can’t prescribe anything with the THC CBD in it,” McCaughan said.
The prohibitions have stymied research. As a result, there’s no science on the effectiveness of pet cookies, pills, tinctures, oils and other products.
Maureen Dorsey, a veterinarian at Oakland Veterinary Hospital, is concerned about the absence of data to support manufacturers’ claims.
“In my vet community, we have online discussions that this is coming up,” she said, “but we have no information about the efficacy, the dosage or the content of these products, and no one can do the research because the plant is still federally illegal.”
Yet anecdotal evidence is convincing many people to give it a try anyway, particularly those with elderly or sick pets. And the passage of state Proposition 64, which legalized the recreational use of pot, is likely to have even more people running to dose their pets.
Before the death of her dog, Ziggy, in March, Kaity Evans, a pet sitter in Oakland, gave him Treatibles for his arthritis. The 11-year-old Great Dane would drag his back feet on the ground, scuffing his paw pads. Evans said when he was on the CBD-based treats he could pick up his feet and seemed to feel better in general.
When Evans and her husband rescued Vincent, another Great Dane in April, they began giving him cannabis chews to help him adjust to his new life with two cats.
“It really helped Ziggy a lot and we give Vincent a cookie or two to keep his stress levels low,” Evans said.
TreatWell CEO Alison Ettel said she’s aware that dogs, cats, pigs, alpacas, goats, horses and even a bearded dragon have been given the tincture by their owners. She said hemp-based products work for anxiety in pets, but aren’t effective for more serious medical conditions, so the San Francisco company began marketing pet tinctures with a combination of THC and CBD to dispensaries nine months ago.
Unlike hemp-based products, the pet’s owner needs a medical marijuana card to buy the products with THC. However, there is no scientific research to support the claim that they work better, and manufacturers of CBD-based products dispute the claim.
“We see people coming in for palliative care (for their pets) to try to fight the cancer or reduce the tumor or for symptom relief,” Ettel said. “We’re seeing fantastic results with severe pain far more than CBD alone would ever be able to do.”
Yet companies like TreatWell that use THC in their products are in risky legal waters, though it’s a chance Ettel says she’s willing to take to help seriously ill animals and their desperate owners.
And despite the unclear legal territory, pet store owners say customer demand for pet cannabis products has surged.
Heidi Hill, owner of Holistic Hound pet store in Berkeley, created its own edible line in August. Since June alone, Hill said she’s sold 8800 CBD products. There are treats and oils available in different potencies. The cost ranges from $29.50 to $99.
“People really want to do anything they can to help their pets, and a lot of times, this is their last hope,” Hill said. “It doesn’t always work, but when it does it’s a beautiful thing.”
However, there is little information available about proper dosage.
“We recommend that they use a very small amount, the least possible to get the desired effect whether it’s for pain relief or anxiety,” Hill said. “But then if you don’t get the results you want, go incrementally up.”
Tim Shu, a Los Angeles-Area veterinarian learned the benefits of cannabis firsthand with his senior dog Tye. The 15-year-old Pit bull has arthritis and two bad knees.
“If you look at the pain meds out there, like anti-inflamatories they help with pain and arthritis but then they can possibly cause liver and kidney damage,” Shu said. “I created a tincture for her and noticed that she wasn’t getting any side effects and she was a lot more nimble.”
Shu said he also used the tincture on a friend’s arthritic Great Dane that also had good results.
Three years ago, Shu founded VET CBD, a company that makes CBD-based tinctures for pets. It is sold at medical dispensaries.
“Ten or 15 years ago people would say, ‘this is terrible, you can’t give cannabis to your dogs,”’ said Shu, who is no longer a practicing vet. “But we’ve had a real turnaround. Unfortunately the laws are a little bit behind the times.”
This story was originally published on Nov. 18, 2016.
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