The science of CBD and cannabis for cats and dogs
A growing number of pet owners are using cannabis-derived products with high doses of CBD (cannabidiol) and low or negligible doses of THC to alleviate pain, seizures, and other conditions. But what is known about the science of cannabinoid medicine and pets?
There isn’t a lot of peer-reviewed research, but a recent Cornell University study found extremely promising results.
Unfortunately, not a lot. The question of using medical cannabis to improve the health of a dog or cat is a complicated one, and there isn’t a lot of solid, peer-reviewed research examining its safety or effectiveness. But that’s slowly changing.
In July 2018, the first clinical study examining the effects of hemp-based CBD on arthritic dogs was published in Frontiers in Veterinary Science, a leading international journal. The results were extremely encouraging.
In the study, Dr. Joseph Wakshlag of Cornell University and colleagues measured the effects of a particular hemp-based CBD product—ElleVet Sciences’ proprietary hemp oil blend—on pain and arthritis in a small sample of dogs.
The results were remarkable: More than 80% of dogs in the study saw a significant decrease in pain and improved mobility.
That’s only one study, though, and as promising as it is, nobody should rely on a single study to decide the right path for their dog or cat. It’s important to understand the political, ethical, and scientific implications of using medical cannabis in animals.
Most vets can’t touch CBD
You should know this up front: In many states, a veterinarian is not allowed to prescribe or recommend a cannabis product for your pet, regardless of the vet’s personal or professional opinion. Each state has its own veterinary board, and that board adheres to federal law concerning medical cannabis, so even if a state has legal recreational cannabis laws, your vet still may not be able to advise you.
“Vets have been restricted from getting involved,” said Dr. Gary Richter, a veterinarian based in Oakland, CA, who has advocated to allow the use of medical cannabis. “It was crazy that the 16-year-old kid at PetSmart could give you that advice, but I couldn’t.”
“Almost anything that cannabis would be used for in a human, from a medical standpoint, has the potential to be equally as valuable in dogs or cats,” said Richter. “Pain, inflammation, arthritis, gastro-intestinal related things, stress, anxiety, seizures, cancer, you name it. We’ve seen the benefits in all of these areas.”
Illegal states are tough
It’s even worse in states where cannabis is illegal for any purpose. For instance, contributing her own data to cannabis research has been almost impossible for Dr. Dawn Boothe, an internist and clinical pharmacologist at Auburn University in Alabama, according to an article published in VINNews, the website of the Veterinary Information Network.
“At Auburn University in Alabama, Boothe, the clinical pharmacologist, has had difficulty getting her clinical work off the ground, owing to the legal morass,” wrote reporter Edie Lau. “Alabama is one of 20 states where marijuana remains illegal for any purpose, although the state in 2016 created an industrial hemp research program overseen by its agriculture department.”
Only a handful of published studies on CBD and pets
As difficult as it is to research cannabis, a number of scientists have persevered and published solid peer-reviewed work. Their surprising results have piqued the interest of vets and pet owners alike.
“If my dog ever has chronic arthritis, this would be one of the things I’d definitely use.”
Joseph Wakshlag, Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine
In April 2017, American Veterinarian stated, “Concerning to many veterinarians is the lack of peer-reviewed clinical studies proving the efficacy of cannabis products for animals, yet another consequence of marijuana’s status as a controlled substance.”
The angle that has gotten the most vetting is that of marijuana’s toxicity to animals—in other words, dogs or cats accidentally eating their owner’s supply. Indeed, as far back as 2004, a study found that marijuana poisoning was possible in dogs, based on a milligram per kilogram, or weight proportionate, dosage.
That 2004 study found that “From January 1998 to January 2002, 213 incidences were recorded of dogs that developed clinical signs following oral exposure to marijuana, with 99% having neurologic signs, and 30% exhibiting gastrointestinal signs.”
The study in particular gauged what “poisoning” looked like in the animals. Researchers cited gastrointestinal signs as primarily vomiting, and neurological signs as depression, tremors, seizures, disorientation, hyperactivity, or stupor. Prior to that study, there were only a few surveys of cannabis-smoking teenagers who’d exposed their pets to secondhand THC.
Through the 2000s, there were only a few studies done on cannabis and dogs, all mostly corroborating the plant’s mild toxicity. The authors of a 2013 study conducted by a veterinary hospital in Denver observed that “Although the drug has a high margin of safety, deaths have been seen after ingestion of food products containing the more concentrated medical-grade THC butter.”
The right dosage makes all the difference. And it may take some time to find the right amount for your dog. (Julia Sumpter/Leafly)
Dogs absorb CBD differently
The 2018 Cornell study on CBD and arthritis in dogs has given scientists an even deeper understanding of how cannabis works in the body of animals and by extension, humans, especially when it comes to absorption and dosage.
Previous to the Cornell study, cannabis pills were given to dogs on a fasted stomach in a 1988 study. It found that the form of CBD administered was poorly absorbed and did little to help the dog.
Study author Wakshlag said the oil base of the pill in their study accounted for the difference in results, whereas previous studies administered CBD intravenously or as a powder in a gelatin capsule.
What about CBD dosage in pets?
Another big challenge when it comes to cannabis and pets is finding the right dose for each animal. For CBD-only products, like the hemp oil from ElleVet Sciences, if they don’t offer a sufficient amount of CBD or if the CBD isn’t well-absorbed by the animal, you won’t see any change in the pet.
Thus, for Wakshlag, dosage was a prime concern, especially because there is little scientific evidence regarding how to safely and effectively dose a pet orally.
“The dosing [in our study] was basically modeled off of other doses that seem to have worked in a handful of studies in humans—somewhere between 1-5 mg per kg body weight,” said Wakshlag. “We chose 2[mg] because that would be a pharmacologically effective dose, and it wouldn’t be so expensive that it would preclude people from actually using it or buying it.”
THC in pets is trickier
Wakshlag and his colleagues were able to find a good dose of a specific CBD-only product. The stakes change, though, when you add THC into the mix. In fact, many vets and researchers suggest people refrain from giving pets any amount of THC at all.
The THC issue isn’t a settled question.
“THC is actually toxic for dogs. So, of course we wouldn’t want to give dogs THC at all,” said ElleVet’s founder Amanda Howland. For that reason, ElleVet’s products, including the oil used in the Cornell study, are all hemp-based—hemp is defined as cannabis containing less than 0.3% THC content.
The THC issue isn’t a settled question, though. Oakland veterinarian Gary Richter believes in the efficacy of THC as medicine for animals. He’s seen its benefits in his own dog, Leo. Richter also works to educate vets and pet owners about cannabinoid medicine through webinars, lectures, and online continuing education courses.
“The research is very, very clear from the human literature standpoint that there’s medical benefits to THC,” Richter told Leafly during a phone interview. “And while certainly the relative sensitivities are different for people versus animals, we all have a very similar endocannabinoid system. There is no reason to think that THC is beneficial in people when it’s somehow poison to dogs and cats.”
“The thing that troubles me is that you’ve got animals out there that could be benefiting from products with THC in them, and not only are pet owners shying away because of this information but you’ve got veterinarians that are believing this and saying that you should never give an animal something with THC in it,” said Richter.
The right cannabinoid combo
Instead of abstaining from THC altogether, Dr. Richter advises doing research into whether THC might help your pet’s particular ailment—and if so, start with a very small dose.
“The two big players are THC and CBD, but there are so many other compounds within cannabis,” said Richter. “There are other cannabinoids and terpenes and there are things in the product that are going to vastly change its behavior as a medicine. Depending on what’s being treated, the first question is: ‘What is the most ideal combination of these various compounds that will benefit an animal?’”
Overall, Richter says the best way to keep your pet from getting sick from cannabis is to consult with a veterinarian as you dose.
Amazing pet turnarounds with CBD
The results of medical cannabis in dogs and cats with a variety of ailments has been very promising.
“He went from having multiple seizures per week to having one or two per month.”
Gary Richter, Oakland veterinarian
The Cornell study showed that once the right dosage is determined for your pet, CBD can improve arthritis pain. The study involved a small sample size, only 16 dogs, all with a lot of pain from chronic arthritis, and each dog saw significant improvement.
“We had one that the owner was really ready to euthanize the dog and this trial was a last-ditch effort,” said ElleVet founder Howland. “Once she was in the test group, the dog did so well and completely turned around. It’s almost two years later and she’s still alive and doing well.”
“I believe we really scratched the surface in regard to how this could be used from an overall pain perspective,” said Joseph Wakshlag, leader of the Cornell study. “If my dog ever has chronic arthritis, this would be one of the things I’d definitely use.”
Gary Richter’s own dog, Leo, suffers from seizures that are the result of brain damage that occurred during a dog attack. After trying multiple pharmaceutical medications, the Oakland veterinarian put Leo on a cannabis preparation. Richter observed a marked change: “He went from having multiple seizures per week to having one or two per month.”
In addition to the research at CSU and other institutions, there are more and more anecdotal accounts of cannabis-based medicine helping dogs with behavioral and gastrointestinal issues as well.
“It really does have a great anti-anxiety affect,” said ElleVet company founder Howland. “We’ve had a number of vets in Florida try it with some of their patients who really freak out during thunderstorms. We had amazing reports about dogs who’d [previously] hurt themselves or throw themselves through windows during thunderstorms; it’s really calmed them.”
The company has also seen results with irritable bowel syndrome and autoimmune disorders like Crohn’s disease.
What about cats and CBD?
Unfortunately, there isn’t much data when it comes to cannabinoids and cats. ElleVet did find their propriety hemp blend to be helpful to cats, but Howland stressed that cats respond much differently to cannabis than dogs.
Though research for cats still lags behind dogs, leading cannabis researchers have plans to begin studying cats in earnest.
“Cats are absolutely not small dogs and they metabolize things very differently,” said Howland. “Cats can’t take any of the drugs that dogs take for pain. Their livers just don’t tolerate it.”
If a human tries to help an ailing cat by giving it a canine pain reliever, “They can get very sick. There are very few pain options for cats that are safe.”
ElleVet did a long-term safety study to determine if their products are safe for cats and found that for the treatment of anxiety, cats responded better to cannabinoid medicine than dogs. Cats also saw decreases in pain from arthritis and other problems, like dogs. But their hemp oil left a cat’s body after only two hours in cats, meaning they need a much higher dose more frequently than a dog of the same size.
Curious about CBD for your pet? Do your research
Many pet owners are curious about cannabis-based treatments for their ailing companions. The market for CBD products for dogs and cats is booming. But Richter acknowledges that changing the attitude of medical professionals toward the use of medical cannabis with pets is slow, hard work, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.
“We’ve seen the benefits in all of these products,” said Richter. “The science is here, but as is typical with the medical community, you’re going to have a pretty sizeable group in the medical community that will refuse to accept any of it until it’s documented in research.”
Still, he trusts that the research will continue to show cannabis as a positive medical option for the treatment of dogs and cats. Because of that, Richter and many others who’ve seen the firsthand effects of cannabis medicine in animals, don’t see a point in waiting to start helping pets.
“While I am certainly a person who’s a proponent of the research,” he said, “Just because the research isn’t there doesn’t mean you can or should ignore something that’s completely obvious and right in front of your face.”
Pets on Pot: The Newest Customer Base for Medical Marijuana
When Lisa Mastramico needed relief for her ailing tabby, Little Kitty, she turned to an unlikely source: marijuana.
At 12 years old, the cat had arthritis. For a long while she spent her days hiding in a closet, where Ms. Mastramico had built her a bed of plush blankets. After trying various supplements that proved ineffectual, she went to a meeting for Women Grow, an industry group for cannabis entrepreneurs.
She was not sold on the idea right away. “My concern was that it’s not my place to get my cat high,” said Ms. Mastramico, the director of a public access television network in Long Beach, Calif.
But with Little Kitty becoming increasingly isolated, it was time to give it a try. She got a medical marijuana card and purchased two edible oils made for pets and derived from cannabis that she squirts into her pet’s mouth.
Little Kitty doesn’t hide anymore. In fact, she’s more like her old self: sunbathing on the living room carpet, playing with Ms. Mastramico’s other cat, Valentina. “When I’ve given it to her, she’s never acted high: falling face-first into her food bowl, chowing down,” Ms. Mastramico said. “She comes out and socializes, wants to be in your lap, wants to be petted. It’s a very noticeable difference.”
Other animal lovers who have turned to cannabis-based products to alleviate a host of pet maladies, including seizures, inflammation, anxiety and pain, are reporting similar results. Although they have not been approved by regulators, marijuana-based treatments are being used not only for cats and dogs, but for pigs, horses and domesticated wild animals.
Maria Ellis Perez, 55, a mold inspector from Pompano Beach, Fla., gives Treatibles chews made from hemp to one of her pets, a domesticated female skunk named Ricochet. At age 12, Ricochet limps and has cataracts. At one point, she had grown so withdrawn that she refused to eat. “We thought it was her time,” Ms. Ellis Perez said.
But after a few days of nibbling hemp, Ricochet seemed more content. “She was turning her head and looking up with the good eye,” Ms. Ellis Perez said. “She showed up for breakfast.”
The Food and Drug Administration has not approved cannabis for pets, in part because there is little research showing its effectiveness. Veterinarians are not allowed to write prescriptions for the products and, in states where marijuana is illegal, are wary of discussing the idea. Last year, a proposed state law was defeated in Nevada that would have made it possible for veterinarians to prescribe cannabis to pets with chronic illnesses. Still, users swear by the products.
Cate Norton, 36, who lives in Springfield, Vt., and works at an animal rescue center, said she drives her two Rottweilers, Ruby and Leia, to a veterinarian in Hanover, N.H., where medical marijuana is permitted. “My vet would like to do it but can’t legally touch it,” she said.
Ms. Norton gives 3-year-old Leia a hemp-based product called Canna-Pet for seizures and anxiety. In the eight months of treatment, she said, “there has been a great reduction in the severity of her seizures.”
To understand the effect of cannabis on animals, it helps to know a little of the science. The cannabis plant contains dozens of cannabinoids, among them THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol). THC has the psychoactive properties that make people feel high but are toxic to animals.
CBD, on the other hand, offers the benefits without the buzz. Industrial hemp, used to make textiles and paper, is used in pet products, too, because its THC levels are negligible.
“Dogs are very sensitive to the effects of THC,” said Steve Blauvelt, a veterinarian in Bend, Ore. With the recent legalization of marijuana in some states, more pets have ended up in veterinary hospitals panting and in distress after digging into their owners’ stashes or pilfering a pot-laced cookie from the counter.
“Most pet owners who end up bringing their animal in are in denial,” Dr. Blauvelt said. But eventually, he said, “they come clean and say their dog ate one of their brownies.”
Pallas Weber, 53, a video editor in Los Angeles, was skeptical about giving cannabis to Emmett, a 12-year-old chow-shepherd mix who got a diagnosis of bone cancer in 2012, resulting in an amputated front left leg. But the painkiller her veterinarian prescribed left him too woozy to support his 75-pound frame on his other legs.
So last June, Ms. Weber bought Emmett a cannabis-based tincture called VETCBD, which is sold at California dispensaries. Four months later, she has reduced the painkillers, and Emmett moves with some of his old swagger. She uses it for Emmett’s anxiety, too, giving him an extra dose on the Fourth of July to keep him from diving headfirst into the closet. “Fireworks really freak him out,” she said.
Stephen Katz, the New York State assemblyman who is also a veterinarian, has teamed up with the University of Pennsylvania’s school of veterinary medicine to conduct clinical trials of Therabis, a trio of hemp-based powders he created for anxiety, mobility and itching.
“I had a lot of clients who did a lot of flying,” he said. “They wanted tranquilizers so they could carry their dogs in their lap.” He worried, though, about the harsh effect of sedatives on the dogs’ cardiovascular and respiratory systems and thought his clients’ animals would benefit from hemp.
At his practice in the Bronx, he said, he treats a number of pit bulls suffering from allergies and separation anxiety. “Those dogs scratch an itch down to the bone,” he said. The products’ cost is on par with prescription drugs, he said: about $20 to $40 a month.
Pet owners in California, where medical marijuana has been legal for two decades, are at the forefront of the trend. Rachel Martin, 32, a dog trainer, uses VETCBD for a variety of her dogs’ ailments. “All of them have very complex and detailed medical issues,” she said. A Jack Russell terrier named Shadow has had multiple surgeries; Sophie, a rat terrier, had a diagnosis of cancer; and Petri, a Chihuahua-mix, suffers from fear-based anxiety.
Ms. Weber had to get a medical marijuana card to buy products for her dog Emmett. That led her to an awkward conversation with a physician who solely prescribes medical marijuana for people.
“I went to the weed doctor and said, ‘I need a card so I can get it for my dog who had cancer,’” said Ms. Weber, who said she doesn’t smoke pot or drink. “He said, ‘I don’t have a solution for that.’ So I told him I had insomnia.”
Maureen McCormick, 54, lives in Newport Beach, Calif., and was persuaded of marijuana’s benefits after relatives used cannabis products for their own aches and pains. She thought they would benefit her 14-year-old cat, Bart, who has arthritis in his front legs. “I told the doctor I had a knee that aches, and my shoulder, too,” she said. “I also said I want to use it for my cat.” She got the card in July.
Ms. McCormick is using a tincture by Treatwell, a California company that also makes edibles for humans. So far, though, she said she has not seen much progress in Bart. “It’s frustrating, because cats are more challenging than dogs,” Ms. McCormick said. She has adjusted the dose three times, working with Melinda Hayes, 39, the founder of Sweet Leaf Shoppe, a medical cannabis delivery service based in Los Angeles.
Ms. Hayes, who opened her dispensary in 2014, started working with pet owners and their animals last year after consulting with cannabis product makers. “It’s a lot of going back and forth,” she said.
She said she now aids 40 animals, and about half of her calls these days are about pet care. “I go as often as I can to meet the pet,” Ms, Hayes said. “Owners look at their loved ones through rose-colored glasses. People can verbalize their reactions. Animals cannot.”
She also gives cannabis products to her own pets: her boxer-terrier mix, Diva, who tore a ligament in her right knee; Snoop, her pitbull-Shih Tzu mix, who has allergies and anxiety; and Tug, a box turtle who suffers from disorders of the shell and the bones. Ultimately, Ms. Hayes wants to have a full-service storefront where people can take their pets for consultations and care.
“This way,” she said, “I can combine my two favorite things: dogs and pot.”
4 Top Rated Pet CBD Brands
Pet CBD is booming. CBD is a massive, emerging market, especially in the United States. In 2020, sales of CBD products in the U.S. alone generated $4.6 billion and sales are forecasted to grow nearly four-fold by 2026 to $16 billion. For those who do not know, CBD is derived from cannabis and is a separate compound from THC, which is the psychoactive compound in marijuana. These are two separate entities within the cannabis plant. Hemp, which is the type of cannabis that CBD is derived from, was legalized in 2018 by the Farm Bill because it only has trace amounts of THC, if at all.
The many applications of CBD
CBD offers a wide range of health benefits based on its intrinsic qualities as an anti-inflammatory. It helps treat anxiety, insomnia, joint pain, skincare issues, seizures, and more. And these health benefits have not gone unnoticed by health care professionals; the FDA recently approved a new drug that includes CBD for epilepsy. With the growing market for humans booming, the CBD for pets market is also exploding.
CBD has the same general applications for pets as it does for humans, including relief from joint pain and anxiety. In addition, it benefits immunity and brain health. The CBD pet market is globally valued at $27.7 million and is predicted to grow more than 40 percent by 2027. As is the nature of any emerging market, the CBD pet market is very competitive, with major pet care companies looking to enter the fray.
Top CBD pet brands we love
Read on to explore some of the best CBD pet brands with great products available this summer.
1. Charlotte’s Web
Overall CBDC rating: 9.4/10
Charlotte’s Web has earned its place at the top of our list. It is one of the oldest brands in the industry, founded in 2012 by seven brothers, and is one of the most highly rated on CBD Clinicals, a website that reviews CBD brands. They are also a top choice brand from Petco. The Stanely brothers named the product after their sister, Charlotte, who passed away in 2020. The brand, which started with the goal of helping Charlotte, is now a well-respected CBD manufacturer with a variety of products for humans and dogs. For dogs, they offer three major types of chews that use a full spectrum hemp extract of CBD for several purposes.
2. Honest Paws
Overall CBDC rating: 9.3/10
Honest Paws is another highly rated CBD brand for pets that offers CBD products for dogs, cats, and even horses. The core of their ideology is pet health and wellness, stemming from the root cause of the brand’s creation. The company’s co-founder Chelsea Rivera found CBD products when her dog, Baby Rose, was ill. The vet’s option was a medication with a list of side effects and no guarantee that it would work.
Honest Paws uses organic full-spectrum hemp oil, tested by a third party for purity. For dogs, they have CBD oil drops and chews labeled Calm, Wellness, Mobility, and Relief. They also offer Wellness drops for cats and horses.
3. Pet Releaf
Overall CBDC rating: 9/10
Pet Releaf is another top brand from Petco. The Colorado-based company was founded by Steve and Alina Smith and Chelsea Gennings to create a ‘less is more’-style CBD product that has helped over 2.5 million pets. The brand was inspired by their dog Maddy. They created Edibites, which includes ingredients sourced only from American farms for Wellness, Calm, Immunity, and Hip & Joint Pain. They also offer USDA Organic Hemp Oil for cats that is a full spectrum hemp extract.
Overall CBDC rating: 8/10
HolistaPet is another brand highly rated on CBD Clinicals and is included on this list because of its wide range of products. This brand, like Honest Paws, includes products for dogs, cats, and horses. While they include the typical Hemp Oil Drops of the other brands for all three, they also have cat treats with CBD in them, which is unique in this list.
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