Just two years ago, the idea of recommending cannabis as a medical treatment for pets was “complete nonsense”, says Los Angeles veterinarian Dr. Tim Shu. 

“Cannabis and pets has always been associated with toxicology, emergency trips to the hospital and things like that…because for so long, veterinarians were saying, ‘you have to keep marijuana away from your pets, otherwise they’ll end up in the ER.’”

Saying that’s a far cry from the animal health industry’s ever-evolving relationship with cannabis today would be an understatement.

America’s cannabis-for-pets business has exploded in recent years, with new CBD-based products (from chews and tinctures to biscuits and oils) hitting the market every day.

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Dr. Tim Shu

Shu is the founder and CEO of VETCBD, a California company that makes non-psychoactive cannabis oil for cats and dogs. He says the industry’s exponential growth is in response to an increasing demand for alternative pet treatments for everything from an old dog’s debilitating arthritis to a beloved cat’s chronic seizures.

“Traditionally, a lot of our patients go on [pain] medication that can have side-effects that can affect their livers or their kidneys…some of our patients either can’t handle those traditional medications because their bodies are just too weak for it, or their owners are looking for something else because they’re concerned about the possible side effects,” says Shu.

“We know from studies and research papers over the last 30 years that there’s a lot of evidence that CBD can be beneficial and… there’s really no shortage of owners willing to try this for their pet because they’re impressed by the lack of side effects and the efficacy in comparison to a lot of the traditional prescriptions.”

Even after two years in the business, Shu himself is still surprised by the effects of cannabis-based medicine on a range of animal ailments.

While veterinarians in California aren’t legally allowed to prescribe cannabis for pets, he has been able to recommend the treatment to “thousands” of animals, and says he’s frequently taken aback by the results.

“As vets, we’re in a unique situation because we’re truly advocates for our patients…it’s our duty to always find and seek out the best course of treatment available to them. If cannabis offers such a course of treatment, its our obligation to pursue that for our patients,” says Shu, whose VETCBD medicine is available in roughly 140 cannabis dispensaries across the state.

“Some of these dogs go from having multiple seizures a week to maybe once a month. That’s huge.”

Dr. Sarah Brandon is the co-founder of Canna Companion, a Washington company that makes CBD capsules for cats and dogs. In coming months, she hopes to release a line of chews and oils to respond to pet owners’ growing demands.

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Dr. Sarah Brandon

“The demand is definitely there and rising,” says Brandon, who started experimenting with cannabis for pets on her own pain-plagued Rottweiler.

“The more people who see how it works, the more vets that are comfortable seeing how it works and that their patients are improving and not getting worse, there’s going to be more demand.”

Similarly to Shu, Brandon finds herself consistently moved by the effects cannabis-based medicine can have on pets. She says it makes her feel like she’s doing “the right thing.”

“People will get ahold of us to say, ‘I have my friend back’,” says Brandon.

“The personality of their animal is back; their pet wants to interact again. A dog that wasn’t even able to get up and go outside unaided can now maybe walk down the block and back…it routinely brings us tears when we hear that.”

In the years to come, Brandon sees the industry continuing its upward mobility as states across the country embrace measures to legalize cannabis. She sees a focus on cannabis and animal health as a natural next step.

“I think what’s going to happen is the human world is going to get everything settled… and then there will be regulation [for pets] following what the human world does,” she says. “That’s typical of veterinary medicine and I don’t see this going any other way.”