As medical marijuana gains acceptance across North America, pet lovers are starting to wonder if medicinal cannabis could also be an effective treatment for their furry family members. That might sound crazy, but the idea of treating sick animals with cannabis gained credibility recently when the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association to persuade Health Canada to consider allowing medical marijuana for pets.
“[A]s with all of our family members, we want to ensure that our pets live happy, healthy lives," Dr. Sarah Silcox told Civilized via email. Dr. Silcox is the President and Director of the Canadian Association of Veterinary Cannabinoid Medicine (CAVCM), which advocates for fair access and species-specific research of medical cannabis for animals.
"With the growing popularity of medicinal cannabis, many people are hearing about/experiencing the health benefits that cannabis can provide, and want to extend those benefits to their pets,” she added.
Of course, many owners are already doing that, which concerns medical experts like Dr. Enid Stiles - a Quebec-based vet who serves as the Executive Council Member for the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA).
“We know that some clients and pet owners are already giving cannabis as medicine," she told Civilized. "And without the ability to prescribe a dosage, there is the potential for toxicity if it’s not used judiciously.”
Dr. Stiles also indicated that cannabis has real potential as a treatment for sick animals, but research on the use of medical marijuana - especially the cannabis extract cannabidiol oil (CBD oil) - for pets to date is limited. She explained that because cannabis is a controlled substance, it is hard to get permission to use it in controlled studies.
Once legalization comes into effect and it’s more accessible, more studies should be underway, which opens the opportunity for cannabis treatment to be available for pets.
The medicinal benefits of cannabis for pets
Both Dr. Silcox and Dr. Stiles pointed out that the use of CBD and other cannabis products holds a lot of potential for pets. Dr. Stiles indicated that the primary use would be pain management, whether neurological pain, chronic osteoarthritis, post-surgery and other various forms of pain in oncology. Additionally, there could be improvements in conjunction with other medications to help with epilepsy, anxiety or age-related issues.
And for owners, medical marijuana could offer peace of mind.
"Pet owners are always looking for options to treat their pets," Dr. Silcox told Civilized. "Sometimes this is because conventional medicine has not been completely successful, other times they are not comfortable with the side effects, and sometimes they would just prefer to use something ‘more natural’. Having a legal source of cannabis products that pet owners can access for use with their pets will provide them with the option to try this newly emerging therapy."
But it will probably take some time before owners can legally access cannabis products designed and approved for animal consumption.
The group responsible for approving drugs for animal use in Canada is the Veterinary Drug Directorate (VDD), which is part of Health Canada. At this time, the VDD has not approved any cannabis products for animal use (other than those derived from hemp seed and hemp seed oil, which do not contain CBD).
To get approval from the VDD, a cannabis company would need to demonstrate their product's consistency, safety, and efficacy - the same three criteria required for all new drug submissions. Dr. Stiles pointed out that to get to this point, more studies around the safety of cannabis-derived drugs are required.
Another stumbling block is the legal definition of medicinal cannabis patients in Canada. While humans can get medical marijuana through the Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations (ACMPR), pets can't because the ACMPR only applies to 'persons.' That's something Dr. Silcox hopes to change in the near future.
"This is an area that we would like to see amended, so that veterinarians can provide the recommendation for our clients to access medical cannabis for use in their pets, through the same channels that are used for human medical cannabis use," she told Civilized.
She also wrote that, "as with cannabis use on the human side, we want to ensure that cannabis products...used to treat animals are developed using good production practices, are safe, are clearly labelled, and are being used in an appropriate manner. The best way to do that is to have products that are specifically designed for animal use, held to the same standards as other medical cannabis products, and their use overseen by a veterinarian."
For now, however, medical marijuana will remain a humans-only medicine.
Don't share your stash
Once recreational cannabis becomes legal in October, some Canadians will be tempted to share their stash with sick pets. But that's a terrible idea, according to Dr. Stiles and Dr. Silcox. Without guidance from a veterinarian, owners may inadvertently use an inappropriate product, administer an inappropriate dose, or use cannabis for an inappropriate condition, they warned. And that could put pets at risk of adverse effects, drug interactions, or overdose.
That would be a bad case of history repeating itself, said Dr. Stiles, who noted that Colorado saw a bump in cases of toxicity involving pets after legalization. The main culprit was cannabis edibles - though Dr. Stiles pointed out that it’s unclear in some cases if pets became sick because of the chocolate or the THC in edibles. While the known cases of fatal toxicity are not high, they have resulted in cases of seizures, emergency care and hospitalization. And that's not something they want to see pets or owners go through.
"While these are therapeutics that may have some usefulness, they need vet oversight," Dr. Stiles told Civilized. She added that those working on these changes are encouraging safety labelling (perhaps through posters, or on the packaging) for users to be aware of the dangers to their pets.
"Please do not give it to your pet without first discussing it with your vet," Dr. Stiles urged. "This may sound silly, as currently your vet doesn’t have the right to prescribe, however they can explain toxicity and what that can look like. They can discuss the risks associated with the method of treatment a patient is planning because depending on the product given, there can be different impacts."
Currently, vets are not allowed to discuss dosage guidelines with pet owners. However, they can educate them about the risks of using cannabis without proper guidelines, the risks the different products can create and what warning signs to look for in pets with respect to toxicity and other dangerous side effects.
And they may be allowed to make dosage guidelines in the near future. Right now, the Canadian Counsel of Veterinary Registrars is considering a proposal to let vets make recommendations and provide dosing guidelines for clients who choose to use cannabis products purchased over-the-counter once legalization becomes law in October.
"Vets are pharmacists too," Dr. Stiles noted, "so it’s their legal responsibility to ensure pet owners are aware of why a medication is being prescribed, how the medication is to be administered and the possible risks and side effects of its use...This is why it is so important for veterinarians to be included in the legislation surrounding cannabis use for animals."
A new frontier
Although countries around the world have been liberalizing marijuana laws recently, none of them appear to allow medicinal cannabis use for pets.
"Despite the growing number of countries that allow medical cannabis use, I am not aware of any other jurisdiction that currently permits veterinarians to prescribe medical cannabis for their patients," Dr. Silcox told Civilized.
The sale of CBD products for pets has been popular in America for several years, despite the fact that the federal government still prohibits all forms and uses of cannabis. But American pet owners should keep in mind that there is little oversight and regulation over CBD products, and veterinarians are still not able to legally prescribe or dispense them, which means they could pose health risks to animals despite the manufacturers' good intentions.
Ensuring the quality and safety of those products requires regulation. Canada could be the first to take that step either by developing a legal pathway for pet owners to access cannabis, or for veterinarians to authorize its use through the ACMPR.