Medical marijuana is going to the dogs

Products containing cannabidiol (CBD) are now being marketed to help dogs and other pets with anxiety, pain, swelling and arthritis.
Products containing cannabidiol (CBD) are now being marketed to help dogs and other pets with anxiety, pain, swelling and arthritis.
Published Dec. 16, 2016

After more than two years of foot-dragging, red tape and court battles, the first Florida patients are starting to receive strains of marijuana that are non-euphoric but can help relieve certain medical conditions.

Under a constitutional amendment passed in 2014, it can be purchased only by those whose doctors prescribe it for seizure disorders, cancer, severe muscle spasms and certain other illnesses.

Dog owners apparently face no such hurdles.

A handful of pet stores, websites and catalogs are now offering pet products that contain cannabidiol, a non-psychoactive component of hemp and marijuana that can calm anxious pooches and provide relief from pain, swelling and arthritis, the manufacturers say.

"Like anything in the cannabis space, education is a key component to get people to understand what we're about, what we're doing and what their preconceptions of cannabis might be," said Graham Sorkin, director of business development at Mary's Medicinals, a Denver company.

Mary's has been producing transdermal cannabis patches for humans in its home state, where marijuana is legal for both medical and recreational purposes. It recently developed a gel pen that dispenses a measured dose of cannabidiol for dogs. Treatibles, an Oakland, Calif., company, makes chew treats that contain the substance.

The introduction of the pet medicines has sparked strong debate.

The manufacturers insist their products are legal. Because of the chemical makeup of the cannabis used in the Mary's Medicinals gel, it is classified as hemp instead of marijuana under federal law and can be distributed to all 50 states, Sorkin said.

Online, Treatibles states, "Our pet chews are nontoxic, plant-derived wellness chews infused with non-psychoactive hemp-derived CBD. This is NOT medical cannabis for dogs."

Many in the veterinary world think otherwise.

"The first thing is it's illegal in the state of Florida," said Don Morgan, a retired veterinarian in Belleair Bluffs and past president of the Florida Veterinary Medical Association. "The second thing is we do not have peer-reviewed scientific data to substantiate the use of medical marijuana in dogs at this time. There's just not enough evidence to show anything."

Morgan noted that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration includes marijuana in its Class 1 category of drugs it considers as having no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse, along with heroin, LSD, ecstasy and others. For that reason, veterinarians cannot prescribe cannibinoids.

The Potpourri Group, the parent company that produces the catalog In the Company of Dogs, which offers the Mary's Medicinals gel, did not reply to requests for an interview.

The American Veterinary Medical Association said it does not have an official policy on the new medical marijuana products for pets.

"As you know, medications do not necessarily work the same in animals as they do people, which underscores the value of extensive studies done showing safety and efficacy and also the value of the FDA's approval process for drugs used in animals," said Sharon Curtis Granskog, spokeswoman for the veterinary association. "There are possibilities of adverse reactions including toxicities and failure to treat the clinical condition at hand. Veterinarians making treatment decisions must use sound clinical judgment and current medical information and must be in compliance with federal, state and local laws and regulations."

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PetSmart, the nation's largest pet store chain, won't sell the product. "We defer to veterinary professionals on recommended veterinary care options and treatments," the company said in a statement.

The Food and Drug Administration has not approved cannabis for pets. And testing of marijuana, whether for human or animal benefit, is difficult because of its status as a Class 1 controlled substance.

"We'd like to see more research done to see what the actual benefits are, how they would proceed, what the dosage would be, that it's safe and beneficial," said the veterinary association's Michael San Filippo. "We've certainly seen a lot of evidence that it works, but without the science, we just don't know."

Cannabis plants contain dozens of cannabinoids, including tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). Much like the highly touted Charlotte's Web strain of marijuana that was approved for medical use in Florida in 2014, the pet products contain CBD, but no THC, the component that makes users feel high.

In the case of CBD Pet Care, the gel product manufactured by Mary's Medicinals and distributed by the Green Pet Shop of Deerfield, Ill., the dosage is squirted onto the human's fingertip, then rubbed into the skin of the dog's inner ear or other exposed area of skin. The dosage is 1 milligram per 20 pounds, and can be delivered as needed up to four times a day. Treatibles treats also contain about 1 mg of CBD.

In November, Florida voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment broadening state medical marijuana laws. Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia have or will soon have laws legalizing marijuana in some form.

It will be up to the Legislature to draw up state laws to meet that mandate here, and it's hard to speculate how that might affect four-legged users.

Manufacturers of pet cannabis products say they aren't going away. Their websites are filled with testimonials from owners of dogs (and cats and other pets) that couldn't eat, were crippled with pain or were so lethargic the owners were considering euthanizing them before the cannabis products reversed the symptoms.

"It's a culture change," said Brian Wright of the Green Pet Shop. "Stores are still a little hesitant to carry something with 'cannabis' or 'hemp' in the name, because for so long there was this stigma. For so long, we've overlooked the medicinal benefits. Active users absolutely swear by it."