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Ask a Vet: Do You Support Medical Marijuana Use in Dogs?

I've been involved in the debate about dogs and marijuana from the start -- largely without trying.

 |  Apr 8th 2014  |   12 Contributions


It all started around November 2007, when I wrote an article (that has since been updated several times) about marijuana ingestion in dogs and cats. The intent of the article was to provide pet owners with unbiased and nonjudgmental information about marijuana intoxication. At the time, medical marijuana was legal in many states but recreational use of the substance was illegal everywhere in the USA. Even medical use was a violation of federal law. The federal government was known for intermittently cracking down on cannabis dispensaries in states (especially California) with legal medical marijuana.

As a result, owners of dogs who had consumed their stashes or their "medibles" faced a number of stresses. Would their dogs be OK? Would the vet turn them in to the authorities? Could they get in trouble? Should they be honest with the vet? What should they expect?

When I wrote the article, I attempted to clarify the means of exposure (dogs will eat marijuana plants straight, but they are especially prone to consumption of edible products), symptoms of intoxication (disorientation, lethargy, staggering, sometimes vomiting, dribbling urine, and hyper-responsiveness to auditory, tactile, and visual stimuli), treatment (supportive care), and expected outcome.

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Photo of Dr. Eric Barchas by Liz Acosta

In the initial version of the article, my assessment of the expected outcome was this: "serious long-term health consequences and fatality from the marijuana intoxication are essentially unheard of." In other words, the prognosis for dogs who have consumed marijuana -- even massive quantities of the stuff -- is generally excellent. For the record, that remains my general assessment of the prognosis for dogs who have consumed marijuana.

The article was intended to teach dog owners about marijuana intoxication in their pets in an honest and non-judgmental way. I don't know how much dog owners learned from the article, but I can tell you that the article and its fallout have been highly educational for me. I have received significant education about the law of unintended consequences.

That article launched me, unwittingly and against my will, into the heat of the canine medical marijuana debate. For many years I was quoted -- nearly always without first consulting me, and very often out of context -- by pro-veterinary marijuana advocates. The quote that ended with "essentially unheard of" got picked up and repeated by media outlets such as the Durango Herald and the San Francisco Weekly. Even mighty High Times Magazine cited me in pro-canine-marijuana arguments. None of these esteemed publications made an effort to contact me for comments before quoting (or in the case of High Times, essentially misquoting) my work.

As is the nature of life, publicity was promptly followed by hate mail. People contacted me to tell me that I was endangering dogs and encouraging illegal activity. Hey, I thought to myself, I was just trying to provide an honest and non-judgmental informational article. I never said that I was in favor of veterinary marijuana.

In December, 2012, the highly respected Journal of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care published a paper on canine exposure to marijuana that contained a bombshell. The paper was titled "Evaluation of trends in marijuana toxicosis in dogs living in a state with legalized medical marijuana: 125 dogs (2005-2010)."

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Medical marijuana by Shutterstock.

The paper, as its name implies, set out to evaluate trends in marijuana exposure after legalization of medical marijuana in Colorado. No surprise, cases of canine exposure went up when medical marijuana was legalized. And I'll bet they've gone up even more since the legalization of marijuana for recreational use.

The paper did contain one major surprise for me, however: The authors stated that "[ingestion] of baked goods made with medical grade tetrahydrocannabinol resulted in two [canine] deaths."

If two dogs died as a result of THC ingestion, that means that serious long-term consequences from THC ingestion could not any longer be called "essentially unheard of." They are now heard of.

The two deaths were highly contrary to my personal experience with canine marijuana intoxication. I have never seen a dog, even among those who consumed massive quantities of marijuana, suffer anything more serious than a bad trip. But I could not deny the facts. I updated the article on my website with the new information and a link to the journal abstract.

Ironically, my work is now cited by both sides of the veterinary marijuana debate. And I now I get mail from folks on both sides. Within the last week I was invited to speak on a radio show as a pro-veterinary marijuana advocate (I declined for reasons that will be outlined below). And I also received the following email:

Your web page mentions medical marijuana as the cause of death in some dogs. Have other possible causes of death been ruled out (chocolate, for example)? Anti Medical Marijuana groups are citing your web page and I don't want you to get caught without your facts straight. IF the LD50 is achievable in dogs (unlike humans) the world needs to know, but misinformation should be unethical for any scientist no matter what the motive.

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Dog with paw on her head by Shutterstock.

Hey folks, you're not going to score any points with me by hinting that I'm unethical. And the facts you mention aren't mine: They were reported by Stacy D. Meola et al; I have provided ample links and citations for the paper, and I recommend that everyone read it for themselves. Note that the article contains contact information for the lead author -- if you have questions about it, consider getting in touch with her yourself.

So my facts are 100 percent straight and cannot be refuted: It is a fact that I read a paper that said two dogs died after eating THC butter.

Is there any chance that chocolate killed the dogs? I've heard that one asked many times. I wasn't there, so I don't know. But I do know that pot is a downer and chocolate is an upper. Asking whether chocolate killed the dogs is like asking whether someone who died with symptoms of a quaalude overdose might, in fact, have been killed by cocaine. I also know that JVECCS is a respectable, peer-reviewed journal, and I'll bet Dr. Meola and her team ruled out all other possible causes of death.

So, how do I really feel about veterinary marijuana? I'm neither in favor of it nor against it. My experience has been that dogs don't respond well to current varieties of medical marijuana and medibles. However, experience with humans has shown that marijuana has valid medical uses. Research is necessary to determine which strains or varieties might be beneficial to dogs. I'm in favor of doing that research, but at this time I cannot recommend medical marijuana for my patients.

Meanwhile, although my article has led to many unintended consequences, I feel that it also has served its original intent as well. My desire was to proved a balanced and unbiased assessment of marijuana intoxication in pets. Given that both sides of the debate have regularly quoted me and also attempted to excoriate me, I feel that accomplished my purpose.

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