With the widespread availability of so many tasty marijuana-infused edibles, it's easy to carelessly leave them lying where your dog might eat them. While some may think this amusing, it's no laughing matter as dogs are especially sensitive to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
According to the Human Society of Boulder Valley, 95% of marijuana exposures in pets occur in dogs, and ingesting marijuana is the most common way our pets are exposed to THC.
How Ingesting Marijuana Affects Dogs
Anecdotal reports by veterinarians and dog owners indicate that marijuana can help relieve a wide range of ailments. However, many marijuana-based products can be debilitating to dogs because they contain too much THC.
When marijuana is inhaled or ingested, THC is absorbed into the bloodstream and acts on the endocannabinoid system (ECS), a network of receptors that are located throughout the body. THC and the other cannabinoids in cannabis attach to these receptors to elicit the various effects marijuana is known to have in humans like stimulating appetite and fighting pain.
The two main receptors in the ECS are: CB1 receptors, which are primarily found in the brain and spinal cord and CB2 receptors, which are mainly located in the immune system. Dogs are particularly sensitive to THC because their cerebellums and brain stems contain a higher concentration of these receptors. These areas of the brain are responsible for important mechanisms like coordination, heart rate and respiratory rate. Activation of these receptors by THC is likely responsible for most of the signs of marijuana poisoning in dogs.
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If your dog eats marijuana, the effects they experience will depend on their size and weight as well as the amount and type of marijuana ingested. When evaluating drugs, researchers often establish an LD50, or the dosage of a certain drug that causes death in 50% of a research population.
According to The Ultimate Pet Health Guide, which was written by integrative veterinarian Dr. Gary Richter and contains an entire chapter dedicated to cannabis and pets, researchers haven’t been able to find an LD50 for orally ingested marijuana in dogs, in spite of concerted efforts to do so.
However, Dr. Richter says that this doesn’t mean that marijuana isn’t toxic to dogs. And while marijuana doesn’t have an LD50, many edibles on the market contain chocolate, raisins, coffee and other foods and compounds that can be toxic to animals, so it important to observe your dog to see if emergency medical intervention is necessary.
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Common signs that your dog has ingested marijuana can include anxiety, depression, low heart rate, dilated pupils, tremors, lethargy and vomiting, while more severe signs include seizures and comas. The signs of marijuana ingestion typically become apparent within 30 minutes to three hours of ingestion.
Treatment for marijuana poisoning depends on the time since ingestion. Early treatment given within 30 minutes of ingestion and before symptoms have developed calls for inducing vomiting to remove marijuana from the stomach, thus minimizing the amount of THC available for absorption.
After this time, inducing vomiting may cause a potentially life-threatening condition called aspiration pneumonia, which occurs when vomit is inhaled into the lungs. Dogs at risk for aspiration pneumonia can be given activated charcoal to help reduce the absorption of THC from the gut into the bloodstream. This is administered along with intravenous fluids to dilute THC and promote its excretion from the body.
In his book, Dr. Richter notes: “In nearly all cases [of marijuana ingestion], the effects are transient (hours to days) and leave no lasting damage. While the research has not been done in cats, the same is likely true.”
He does note that sometimes dogs that have eaten marijuana can show signs of static ataxia—they may seem rigid and have a hard time standing. These cases, while not necessarily fatal, usually requires medical support.
With prompt treatment, most dogs recover from marijuana poisoning within three to 12 hours. However, because THC metabolites are stored in fat and are eliminated from the body over time, dogs may continue to show mild to moderate signs of marijuana poisoning for several days following treatment.
The amount of time marijuana stays in the body depends on a combination of factors that are unique to each dog. Some of these factors include the amount of marijuana ingested and the breed, size, age and health of the dog.
Keeping marijuana out of reach of dogs is the best way for dog owners to protect against marijuana poisoning. This vital step does not replace the need for supervision, but it can make preventing accidental marijuana ingestion a lot easier.
Photo credit: Sarandy Westfall