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What You Need To Know About The Effects Of Cannabis On Cats and Dogs

The Cannabis industry has been blooming worldwide and this has spilled over to the pet market with Cannabis containing products easily attainable by pet owners.

Veterinary “Cannabinology” (the study into the body’s own Endocannabinoid system (ECS)) is still in its infancy. 

There is no bodily system that is not influenced by the ECS. It regulates physiological and pathological conditions such as pain response, immune functioning, stress response, sleep, appetite, and memory. The ECS system comprises of the Cannabinoid receptors (CB 1 and CB2), the body’s own “cannabis” called Endocannabinoids (ECBs), which bind to the CB receptors, and change the response of the body, and the enzymes to stop the effects of the ECBs. The main function of the ECS is to bring back balance in the body. ECBs are 4-20x less potent than THC and have a much shorter duration of action.  CB receptors are distributed all over your pet’s body, and dogs especially, have a high density of receptors in their midbrain area called the cerebellum. Human studies have shown that certain conditions like Fibromyalgia, IBS, PTSD and Depression may be due to a condition called Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency Syndrome, and this may also be true in our furry companions.

Several other more commonly used pharmaceuticals could also influence the ECS. 

Cannabis contains many phytocannabinoids, not just CBD and THC, as well as other substances like Terpenes (volatile essential oils) and Flavonoids, which also have the potential to influence the ECS. Terpenes, which give the cannabis variety a specific character, and give cannabis a specific taste and smell, also have phytopharmaceutical benefits. Terpenes enhance the effects of the phytocannabinoids in a synergistic fashion which is referred to as the “entourage effect”. Other phytocannabinoids of medicinal interest are CBC, CBG, CBN, CBV, THCV, but many more exist. Cannabis products containing a broader profile of cannabinoids and terpenes tend to be more therapeutically effective than a product containing only a single cannabinoid isolate while limiting the potential adverse effects of a single molecule when given on its own. Dogs are especially sensitive to the side effects of high THC products due to the high density of CB receptors in the Cerebellum. 

Common THC side effects

High intake of phytocannabinoids disrupts the finely tuned ECS and may result in the same common THC side effects seen in humans:

  • delusions,
  • hallucinations,
  • paranoia,
  • sedation.

Common symptoms seen in dogs accidentally ingesting Cannabis products high in THC are:

  • lethargy or depression,
  • unable to walk or falling over(ataxia),
  • vomiting,
  • urinary incontinence/dribbling,
  • dilated pupils,
  • increase sensitivity to sounds, touch, and light, etc,
  • slow heart rate, decrease in body temperature, excessive salivation or drooling.

Less common symptoms are agitation, aggression, slow breathing rate, decrease in blood pressure, fast heart rate, and “dancing eyes”.

Rare symptoms include seizures or a comatose state. Death due to intoxication is extremely rare and may be due to ingesting other toxic substances, like chocolate in so-called “edibles”, or due to other complications rather than the cannabis itself.

If you suspect your fur baby may have ingested anything that may contain high amounts of “cannabis”, or is showing any of the above-mentioned symptoms, it is advisable to take them through to your veterinarian to make sure it is not maybe something else. Please be upfront with your veterinarian if you do have products containing cannabis in your house, as this is important information to allow your vet to make the correct diagnosis more quickly and give the correct and most effective treatment. 

Benefits of Cannabis for Pets

Nevertheless, this does not mean that Cannabis is bad for your pet, but like any medicine, too much can have unwanted side effects, and should a veterinarian that is comfortable working with cannabis always be consulted before you start your pet on cannabis and a vet should be monitoring your pet while on any medicine. Therefore, a VET-CLIENT-PET relationship should exist, as Cannabis is still an illegal substance and only medical practitioners are allowed to prescribe and dispense Cannabis products after a Section 21 permit has been obtained. 

So far very few studies in pets have been done on the medicinal value of Cannabis and most of the scientific information is from mice and human studies, the few studies in dogs, cats, horses, and a parrot, as well as anecdotal reports from people and vets who have been using cannabis as a modality of treatment in pets. Cannabis has a long history of being used as a medicine in both humans and animals, but after it was declared a prohibited substance in the 1970s, its use fell by the wayside. In fact, it was only as recently as 2019 the first dog study was published. 

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Prescribing Cannabis as a Therapeutic Substance

Today, Cannabis is being rapidly decriminalized throughout the world and its popularity is growing again as a therapeutic substance. In pets, it has shown great potential to be used in alleviating pain and inflammation, as an anti-anxiety aid, and it is used in controlling certain forms of epilepsy. It is even hoped that it will help with certain cancers in our pets.

Unfortunately, because of the popularity and the easy access to certain Cannabis-derived products, the industry is very under-regulated, and products available over the counter may not be adequately checked for quality and safety. Putting a quality medicinal product on the market costs thousands of rands and, even though Cannabis is seen as a more “natural” and “safer” medicinal substance, it is not cheaper than conventional medicine yet. For this reason, it is always best to consult with your veterinarian first, who will advise or refer you to a medical practitioner that has more experience with prescribing Cannabis to animals. 


Endocannabinoid System – ECS

Endocannabinoids – ECBs

Cannabinoid receptors – CB

Phytocannabinoids – active molecules found in Cannabis that can bind to   Cannabinoid receptors in the mammalian body.

Cannabis – Plant that has psychoactive and non-psychoactive molecules that could potentially have pharmaceutical effects in the mammalian body, also referred to as Hemp (mostly high CBD containing products), Marijuana, Sativa, Indica, Dagga, Ganga, Dap, 420, Dope, Grass, Weed, Hashish, Boom, Pappegaaislaai,

Cannabidiol – CBD, a non-psychoactive cannabinoid found in Cannabis.

Tetrahydrocannabinol – THC, a Psychoactive cannabinoid found in Cannabis causes the “high” effect in humans.

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