Medical marijuana for dogs

Medical marijuana may be controversial, but it’s showing promise as an effective natural pain reliever for dogs with cancer.

When Nikita was facing her final weeks after a battle with cancer, her guardian and veterinarian Dr. Doug Kramer eased her discomfort with medical marijuana. The Siberian husky soon stopped whimpering with pain and began eating, gaining weight and even meeting Dr. Kramer at the door the way she used to. While the marijuana didn’t extend her life, it definitely improved the quality of the life she had left.

After his experience with Nikita, Dr. Kramer dedicated himself to achieving safe dosage guidelines for medical marijuana in animals. Sadly, he passed away himself last summer, but his interest in the uses of cannabis to treat and ease animals didn’t die with him.

For the first time in more than four decades, many Americans are in favor of legalizing marijuana. It’s becoming more widely accepted for its potential medical uses, not just for people, but for companion animals too. Scientists have so far recognized up to 60 important chemicals, or cannabinoids, unique to marijuana.1 According to the National Cancer Institute, “cannabinoids activate specific receptors found throughout the body to produce pharmacologic effects, particularly in the central nervous system and the immune system.”2 These natural chemicals may be helpful in treating cancer-related symptoms such as pain.

“Dogs prescribed medical marijuana have definitely benefitted,” says Darlene Arden, a Certified Animal Behavior Consultant. “The results are almost immediate. Elderly dogs are running around like puppies, and their last months or years are far more comfortable. Those with cancer are no longer in any sort of pain. It increases the appetite. In other words it improves the quality of life. Not surprisingly, few veterinarians are prescribing medical marijuana yet, but I think we’ll see a trend that way once some testing is done.”

More study needed

One of the drawbacks of medical marijuana for dogs is that it hasn’t been studied enough yet. Many veterinarians are in favor of further research on cannabis, but they urge caution until there’s more science behind its use.

Dr. Duncan Lascelles, Professor of Surgery and Pain Management at the North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine has spent 22 years of his professional career researching how to better alleviate pain in animals. He firmly believes that medical marijuana has a lot of potential, but there needs to be more research done.

“Just because it’s natural, does not mean it’s safe,” says. “There are many natural products that are toxic in certain quantities, or when presented as certain extracts or preparations, and we need to remember there are many, many different formulations and strengths of marijuana.

“However, dogs do have the same natural cannabinoid receptors in the endocannabinoid system as humans,” Dr. Lascelles adds. (The endocannabinoid system involves physiological processes such as appetite, pain sensation, mood and memory.) These receptors are found in the dog’s brain and peripheral nervous system. In fact, scientific research has confirmed that cannabis receptors exist in many different species, including dogs.

But not enough study has been done on how to administer medical marijuana to dogs. “Veterinarians and animal parents do not know how much to use, and we don’t know all the possible side effects or interactions with other medications,” says Dr. Lascelles. “It would be irresponsible to prescribe medical marijuana without knowing more about it. Veterinarians need to be able to carefully inform people about the benefits and side effects, and that information is currently lacking.”

Correct dosage is crucial

It’s important to realize that medical marijuana for dogs is not administered through the smoke or by eating the plant. Dr. Kramer suggested using a glycerin cannabis tincture.

Temporary side effects of medical marijuana could include mild behavioral effects, decreased appetite, vomiting, drooling, excitation, twitching, tremors and convulsions. “The side effects would last somewhere between six to 12 hours after ingestion, although if a dog ingested a single ‘human hit’, he would be unlikely to die,” explains Dr. Lascelles.

An overdose, on the other hand, could be dangerous. “Accidental marijuana overdoses have increased over the past couple of years,” says Dr. Lascelles. “Some dogs may have hallucinogenic reactions, which may cause them to have a higher pulse rate, and muscle weakness with loss of coordination.”

With this in mind, a safe dosing protocol needs to be established. As well, one must take into account that to successfully treat chronic or cancer pain, repeated dosing over time would be needed. Dr. Lascelles adds that scientific research on how a dog’s metabolism would react to this repeated dosing is crucial.

“Dog parents should never administer medical marijuana,” he cautions. Darlene agrees: “Marijuana should be dispensed under medical care.”

It may take some time, if ever, before medical marijuana becomes a mainstream pain reliever for dogs. More studies have to be done on its effects and dosing, and the legal complications must be overcome (see sidebar). But it’s showing a lot of promise. Darlene says, “I think the benefits far outweigh any negative connotations, if it’s used judiciously, people are educated about how to use and store it, and it is carefully dosed to the size of the dog.”