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Ask a Vet: Will Medical Marijuana for Dogs Become Commonplace?

Like it or not, the idea of veterinary marijuana is here to stay. It's time for serious studies on the matter.

Dr. Eric Barchas  |  Jun 9th 2015


In January, I found myself sitting on the roof of a guest house in Varanasi enjoying a Kingfisher Beer. Varanasi, in central India, is the holiest city in Hinduism. The guest house had a stunning view of the Ganges and the bathing ghats to which so many pilgrims flock.

My reveries were interrupted by cries for help. A man at a nearby table appeared to be having a medical emergency. He was convulsing in his chair; his friend was desperately crying for someone to call an ambulance.

Part of me wanted to melt into my chair. However, it didn’t take long to ascertain that I was the closest thing to a doctor that would be found anywhere near that rooftop. I approached the pair of British travelers.

Convulsions, or seizures, generally can be brought under control with intravenous medications; such medicines and the means to administer them would not be available on the rooftop. In fact, there was essentially nothing that I could do to stop the convulsions. However, I was confident in the knowledge that seizures usually don’t last too long.

Photo of Dr. Eric Barchas by Liz Acosta.

Photo of Dr. Eric Barchas by Liz Acosta.

I took the affected man’s head in my hands so that he would be less likely to strike it on a hard surface, and I started to ask questions of his friend. Did the man have a history of epilepsy? Had he struck his head earlier in the day? Did he take any medications or drugs?

The friend, who was extremely out of sorts, emphatically answered no to all of my questions. He stated that he had known the man “since uni[versity],” and that this was the first time anything like this had happened.

As I held the man’s head, I noted that his convulsions were somewhat rhythmic. In fact, they were occurring in beat with the music — sort of. It was almost like he was dancing in his chair. Very badly. And his friend didn’t seem right in the head. He seemed almost paranoid.

I couldn’t resist asking again. “Are you sure he hasn’t taken any drugs today?”

The reply came fast. “No, man … except, well, we did drink bhang lassis this afternoon.”

“Bhang lassis,” I erupted, “ha ha ha ha ha!”

Bhang, so you know, is marijuana. It is legal in many parts of India. Shops in Varanasi specialize in mixing it with a yogurt drink (lassi) for tourist consumption. And the bhang lassis in Varanasi are notorious for being too strong. Stories abound of tourists deciding to swim (and sometimes drowning) in the heavily polluted Ganges after drinking them.

Marijuana leaf by Shutterstock.

Marijuana leaf by Shutterstock.

The treatment for the man’s affliction was simple: Put him to bed. The crowd that had gathered seemed relieved by the resolution of the problem. One Australian laughingly summed up the diagnosis: “He was tripping balls.”

The guest-house staff, however, were worried. Apparently they had a problem with people jumping off the roof after drinking bhang lassis.

As staff members hustled the men to their room, I reflected on the situation. That man, I thought, was behaving like many of the dogs I have treated for marijuana exposure. He was out of his mind and a danger to himself. He was not reacting well to his marijuana intoxication.

In my experience, most dogs do not respond well to marijuana. Therefore, I find the subject of medical marijuana for dogs somewhat cringeworthy.

But I must admit to sample bias in my experience. Dogs who respond well to marijuana don’t end up in my office. How many of them are there? Are there any? I have no way of knowing.

Here’s the thing: Medical marijuana is here to stay. And medical marijuana for dogs (which I call veterinary marijuana) is growing ever larger in the collective psyche. I recently received a press release for a cannabidiol-containing product marketed for dogs. Nevada has mooted the idea of becoming the first state to allow marijuana to be dispensed on a veterinarian’s order.

Boxer by Shutterstock.

Boxer by Shutterstock.

The idea of legal veterinary marijuana raises a thought experiment for me. If it were legal in California, would I prescribe it?

For now, the answer is no. As I mentioned, most dogs don’t seem to respond well to it. And I’d also be afraid of running afoul of the DEA or the California veterinary licensing authorities.

But it should be said that new strains of marijuana are being developed at a breakneck pace. The people I know who are pot devotees can go on for hours about how one strain causes more of a body high, whereas some other one causes a cerebral high, another stimulates appetite with minimal high, another relieves pain but doesn’t cause the munchies, and on and on. Might some strain(s) be developed that could be appropriate for certain uses in dogs? Sure.

And what about the legal concerns? The U.S. government is way behind public opinion when it comes to marijuana. This has led to haphazard, non-evidence-based medical use of the product. Perhaps some day the DEA will back off and Congress will reclassify marijuana in a manner that allows for more open study of its medical and veterinary uses.

For now I am opposed to the use of veterinary marijuana. But I support research on the matter, and I reserve the right to change my opinion once the research is done.

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Learn more about dog health from Dr. Eric Barchas:

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