Pot for Pets? Medical Marijuana In The Veterinary Field

When Florida voters head to the polls next week, they will be asked to help decide the future of medical marijuana in our state. As Election Day approaches, several clients and viewers have approached me with a thought provoking question: Could expanding the definition of legal medicinal marijuana lead to marijuana-based medicine for Florida’s pets?

It’s a great question! And like most great questions, the answer is somewhat complicated. So let’s dig in.

As of this writing, marijuana is listed as a Schedule 1 substance with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Should Amendment 2 become the law of the land in Florida, it will not change the fact that the federal government defines marijuana, and all other Schedule 1 substances as “drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”

In the world of human medicine, physicians practicing in states where medical marijuana is legal can recommend or prescribe medicinal marijuana without fear of legal consequences. Those protections, however, do NOT apply to veterinarians. Even if restrictions on medical marijuana are relaxed on November 8th, it will remain a license-losing offense for veterinarians to prescribe it, or even recommend its use. Because of marijuana’s continued listing as a Schedule 1 substance, this restriction even applies to vets who practice in states where both medicinal and recreational marijuana is legal. That’s problem number one.

Problem number two is that the same DEA classification of marijuana as a Schedule 1 substance makes it very difficult to collect meaningful, scientific data on any possible benefits to pets. Many pet owners are surprised to learn the the American Veterinary Medical Association has no official position on the use of medical marijuana in pets.

Yet why should they? When push comes to shove, veterinarians are scientists. The so-called “scheduling conflict” surrounding medical marijuana means translational research, dosage protocols, and all of the benefits that arise as the result of well thought-out, controlled clinical trials remain out of reach to the veterinary profession. The evidence isn’t there due to the fact that merely collecting data comes with career-ending consequences for veterinary researchers. As a result, we simply do not have the science to support the use of medicinal marijuana for pets.

What we DO have, however, is a vast body of anecdotal evidence provided by medical marijuana users who have shared legally obtained products with their pets. These pet owners insist their prescriptions have helped pets cope with a gamut of ailments including anxiety, depression, chronic pain, seizures, inflammatory bowel disease, and even cancer. Whether the veterinary community wants to believe it or not, the fact remains that many pet owners are not willing to wait for legislation or science to lead the way. This has caused our profession to have no choice but to pay attention.

The Pot Predicament

Marijuana occupies a strange set of honors in the halls of veterinary medicine. On the one hand, many veterinarians are desperate to study it. Reports from pet owners who have used it on their pets, combined with research being done in human medicine, relentlessly pique our curiosity. On the other hand, it holds the dubious honor of being one of the top reasons pets are rushed to emergency clinics! In fact, a 2012 study showed that over a five-year period in which marijuana restrictions loosened in Colorado, the number of marijuana toxicity cases increased fourfold throughout that state. 

While we know dogs and cats have cannabinoid receptors, the lack of research means we do not know how the drug will affect our pets or how much is too much. Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest dogs and cats require less marijuana to be affected by it than humans do. And the lack of regulation of marijuana itself means owners cannot be certain what their pets are receiving. For this reason, the one bit of advice veterinarians ARE allowed to dispense regarding marijuana is that in certain doses (which by the way, we don’t know!), it is toxic to pets, and can be fatal. In other words, please don’t “dope” your pets. This includes the sharing of “special” baked goods, which often contain yet another problematic substance - chocolate.

That said, should your pets get into your stash, please be honest with the veterinarian who sees you. Nearly every veterinarian I know, myself included, has a handful of horror stories about “mystery cases” that are eventually linked to marijuana consumption. While many people find such stories amusing, they are no laughing matter for clients who spend hundreds of dollars on unnecessary diagnostics before another party sheepishly admits to letting Fluffy partake. If there’s pot in the picture, speak up. It is not our job to prosecute or judge you, and frankly your medical matters or recreational activities are none of our darn business. All we want to do is help your pet, and we prefer to do so without breaking the bank. To do that, we need your help, and we need full disclosure.

Marijuana vs. hemp

While marijuana remains tightly controlled, the regulations on industrial hemp have begun to loosen. Unlike marijuana, commercially grown hemp contains less than 0.3% of the psychoactive ingredient THC, and high doses of CBD, the compounds believed to have the most therapeutic and medicinal benefits. While hemp products are not restricted by a Schedule 1 listing, they are considered nutraceuticals or supplements.

While the anecdotal evidence surrounding these products is wildly exciting, they are not regulated by the FDA. Indeed, some companies have already been warned about the validity of claims made about their products. So once again, the profession must temper consumer enthusiasm with the lack of scientific study and concrete evidence.

One thing is certain - regardless of the outcome of Tuesday’s vote, the changing social attitudes regarding marijuana have created a demand for knowledge and access that vets can no longer afford to ignore. We can only hope that science and research will soon win the day, and provide the answers our profession and our clients are seeking.

Dr. Kupkee is the lead practitioner at Sabal Chase Animal Clinic 

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