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Ask a Vet: Did I Kill My Dog With Marijuana?

A reader wonders whether her dog might have died after eating a THC edible. Our vet has a one-word answer.

Dr. Eric Barchas  |  Dec 30th 2014


Recently I have noted another uptick in the number of people contacting me about marijuana intoxication in dogs. For the record, I am not a veterinary toxicologist. I am, however, a veterinarian who practices in a part of the country where marijuana, although not technically legal, might as well be. One of my first memories of San Francisco involved attending a parade where I saw three spectators sitting on the street smoking a joint while a police officer stood directly behind them. The police officer went out of his way not to notice. That was in 1994. Marijuana use has since become more tolerated by law enforcement agents.

I also am friends with the founder of Dogster. I subsequently became an Internet early adopter, and I have been writing here for a decade. I have covered marijuana exposure in dogs many times on Dogster, and I have written about the subject on my own website. When one Googles “marijuana in dogs,” I show up (No. 1 result at the time of writing, in fact). Voila, instant “expert.”

Photo of Dr. Eric Barchas by Liz Acosta.

Photo of Dr. Eric Barchas by Liz Acosta.

About a year ago, the Journal of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care published a paper that described the death of two dogs who consumed tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main mind-altering ingredient in marijuana. I considered that to be very newsworthy because I had never before seen nor heard of a death from THC ingestion. I wrote about the paper on Dogster last April. Frankly, it might have been better if I had not. Consider a recent series of emails I received from a person by way my website.

The person in question owned a 12-year-old Brittany Spaniel. One night, the dog abruptly became lethargic. He began to have trouble walking, and his nose became pale. He collapsed, vomited, and subsequently died. The heartbroken owner realized that a relative had previously left a single THC edible in the house. After the dog’s death, the edible could not be found. The owner found my article and began to blame herself. Might the dog have died as a result of consuming the edible? Could owner negligence have caused the dog’s death?

No. Period.

The previously mentioned JVECC paper proved that it is not impossible for THC to kill a dog. But I can assure you from my professional experiences that it is very darned nearly impossible to do so. I have treated dogs who have consumed pounds of marijuana. I have treated dogs who have broken into dealers’ stashes. I have treated dogs that have grazed on Humboldt marijuana farms. I have treated Chihuahuas who have consumed packages of edibles that would floor a dozen people. They were all severely intoxicated, but not one of them came close to dying. There is simply no way, at least at this point in time, that a single edible could kill a Brittany Spaniel.

Sad dog by Shutterstock.

Sad dog by Shutterstock.

Yes, it is theoretically possible for your stash to kill your dog. But many things are much more dangerous. The change in your pocket has far greater potential to be lethal to your companion (more on that next week). Far more dogs die from lighting strikes, bee stings, consumption of vitamin pills, and exposure to gopher bait left in garages by previous tenants than die from THC exposure.

What might have been the cause of death for the dog in question? Two disease processes come to mind. Hemoabdomen is a condition in which dogs suffer from internal bleeding. It most often occurs when a tumor grows on the spleen. Such tumors are very fragile, and they can burst suddenly, leading to shock and potentially fatal consequences.

The second possibility is pericardial effusion. Pericardial effusion occurs when fluid accumulates between the heart and the rigid sac (called the pericardium) that surrounds the heart in the chest. The condition causes compression of the heart, which can lead to circulatory collapse. Tumors growing on the heart are the most common cause of pericardial effusion.

Medical marijuana by Shutterstock.

Medical marijuana by Shutterstock.

Hemoabdomen and pericardial effusion are both common in 12-year-old Brittany Spaniels. Both conditions cause exactly the symptoms described by the heartbroken reader.

There are several other pathological processes that might have led to the dog’s demise, but the overwhelming majority of them are organic diseases that develop naturally. Many toxins have the potential to kill dogs, and had the dog in question been 12 months rather than 12 years old, then some form of toxicity would be high on the list of potential causes. But even then, marijuana toxicity would not make the cut.

So, to my heartbroken reader, I have this to say: Although I do not know with certainty what killed your dog, I do know that THC did not.

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