The benefits of medical cannabis for treating health conditions ranging from anxiety to cancer have been well documented, and ongoing research continues to reveal more applications for cannabis and its derivatives. But do the benefits humans see from cannabis extend to their animal companions too? There isn’t an easy answer just yet – tight government restrictions limit cannabis research not only for human ailments, but also for veterinary medicine.
The human body is equipped with an extensive network of endocannabinoid receptors – cells that respond not only to cannabis-like molecules naturally produced by the body, but also to cannabis compounds such as THC and CBD. But research in the early 1990s, when the endocannabinoid system was discovered, revealed that any animal with a backbone, which includes not only mammals but also reptiles, birds, amphibians and fish, most likely have some form of that system as well. That made it possible to create animal models for studying the effects of cannabis, and those results could be extrapolated to humans, though not necessarily to other animals.
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The fact that mammals and other vertebrates in general have endocannabinoid receptors makes it likely that animals such as dogs, cats, or horses – and even fish and birds - could benefit from cannabis treatments in ways similar to humans. And it appears that they can – but getting and using cannabis for animals becomes complicated.
Veterinarians and pet people alike have reported considerable anecdotal evidence that medical marijuana can help pets suffering from conditions like arthritis, seizures and cancer. In most of those cases, someone gave a beloved pet a dose of their own medical cannabis when it seemed that no other treatments for the animal’s condition were working – and that often led to either a cure for the condition or a significant reduction of symptoms.
But it isn’t legal anywhere in the US for a veterinarian to prescribe medical marijuana for pets in distress. To date, 29 states and the District of Columbia have voted to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes. In those states, it’s possible to buy a variety of cannabis products of varying strengths with a doctor’s referral. But veterinarians are generally prohibited from making the same kind of referral for their patients under any circumstances.
Even veterinarians who advocate for medical cannabis for animals acknowledge that using it can be risky. Not enough research has been done to determine exactly how compounds like THC affect various animal species, or what dosage is best for creatures of different sizes and health conditions.
One reason for this, according to some veterinarians, is that the veterinary community has been slow to take an interest in cannabis for medicinal purposes. But another reason is one that has hampered broader research on the human applications of cannabis too: tight government regulations on all aspects of studying medical applications of cannabis.
The Drug Enforcement Administration still lists marijuana as a Schedule I drug, right up there with heroin, LSD and magic mushrooms in its most restricted classification, reserved for substances with a high potential for addiction and no demonstrated medical applications. That classification makes it difficult to conduct federally funded studies to demonstrate medical applications of cannabis for both people and pets. And relatively few veterinary schools and private researchers are proposing studies of their own to advance the use of medical marijuana for pets, even though existing evidence suggests that it could have powerful benefits
Even though medical cannabis may be hard to come by for pets, one of its compounds isn’t. THC is the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, and its most abundant compound. But cannabidiol, or CBD, is also plentiful, and it has no psychoactive properties.
CBD is often used for treating conditions such as chronic pain, nausea and lack of appetite, and anxiety – and it’s widely available for treating animals with those conditions too. But there’s a catch. The CBD in medicinal products such as oils, salves, creams and treats that are marketed for animals comes from hemp, not from marijuana.
The marijuana plant, cannabis sativa, is home to over a hundred compounds that work together to provide its benefits. But only the buds, leaves and resin of strains that contain psychoactive THC make up what is usually understood as “marijuana.”
Hemp comes from cannabis sativa, too, but only from varieties that have no significant amounts of THC. Hemp does contain CBD, though, and that means it can be made into a variety of products that offer health benefits that are similar to those provided by true “medical marijuana.”
Some studies suggest CBD and THC work best in combination, but hemp based CBD-alone products are freely marketed and sold without the restrictions, however many consider this to be a legal gray area. The ease of selling hemp based CBD products for animals has led to an upsurge in the number of pet health outlets offering them in a variety of forms.
Hemp based products are easily available, but that doesn’t mean they’re all of equal value, or even safe. Like dietary supplements, these products are not standardized, or monitored for quality. They can contain other ingredients, some toxic, and the strength can be highly variable.
Cannabis medicines have been shown to help animals with many of the same conditions people have – anxiety, nausea, cancer, seizures and gastrointestinal problems, but resistance from mainstream veterinary practice and government restrictions on cannabis in general may make it hard for pet lovers to find the support and information they need to use cannabis effectively for their four legged friends.
Holistic veterinarians and those experienced in complementary medicine can often offer information and guidance for the best ways to use cannabis products safely for an animal companion. It may take a while for veterinary research on cannabis to catch up with “human” medicine, but for any creature with a backbone, the benefits may well be the same.
Photo credit: Alvan Nee