Legal weed’s a growing danger to dogs, so keep your canine out of your cannabis

It all started on a Tuesday night, when I came home from work to an unmistakable absence. My brown-and-white pitbull mix, Maizey, wasn’t at the top of the stairs to greet me. Instead, she was in her bed, shaky and confused.

When I tried to get her up, she stumbled, nearly falling over while standing still. Walking to the vet, she leaped like a puppy chasing imaginary balls.

Later, at the 24-hour veterinary clinic in San Francisco's Mission District, the staff ran tests and determined Maizey was in no immediate danger.

Instead, they wagered a guess that Maizey was simply high. On marijuana.

How Are Dogs Getting High?

“Dogs will get into anything and everything,” said veterinarian Dorrie Black of the San Francisco-based veterinary clinic Animal Internal Medicine and Specialty Services.

Thirty-three states and the District of Columbia now have legalized pot in some form. And since Colorado ushered in recreational marijuana in 2014, nine more states and D.C. have followed. As weed has become easier for people to get, it has also become a hazard for dogs.

Black said dogs ingest marijuana by eating the remainder of a joint, or getting into someone’s edible marijuana, either at home, on the street or in parks.

Another unsavory source in San Francisco — and other cities with high numbers of people living on the streets — is human feces tainted with marijuana. This is, in fact, what we think happened to Maizey. She had spent quite a bit of time in the park bushes the morning she got stoned.

“Dogs love that [poop] scent; to them, it's perfume,” said Black.

Black and other veterinarians see this becoming more common in the Bay Area, as the homeless population grows.

What Does A High Dog Look Like?

Veterinarian Benjamin Otten of allCREATURES veterinary clinic in El Cerrito, Calif., said he looks for these telltale symptoms when identifying “marijuana toxicity” in a dog:

  • Wobbly movements, like a person who is drunk
  • Dribbling urine
  • A dazed or glazed look in their eyes
  • Low temperature
  • Nervousness

Dogs exhibit these symptoms because THC — the psychoactive element of marijuana — is poisonous to them. Despite that, none of the vets interviewed for this story had seen an animal die from marijuana toxicity.

“There’s nothing about that actual drug itself that will kill them,” Black said. “It doesn’t cause any organ failure. It doesn’t cause liver failure, renal failure.”

What can happen, Black said, is that the drug can sedate a dog so fully that it will inhale its own vomit, which can be lethal. For that reason, Black cautions pet owners to play it safe.

“If you do not know the quantity that they got into, I’m always going to recommend that you go to your vet,” she said.

A Colorado study found that two dogs who'd ingested chocolate baked goods made with marijuana-infused butter had died, but it's unclear if this was from the marijuana, the chocolate or the combination of those components. Butter and dark chocolate, common ingredients in edible marijuana products, can be highly toxic to dogs.

Cannabidiol, or CBD, on the other hand, is marketed to pet owners for a variety of pet ailments. But the research is incomplete about its efficacy for treating things like animal anxiety and seizures, and veterinarians are not allowed to recommend CBD to patients (although a bill making its way through California’s Senate could change that).

How Do You Treat A Dog That Has Ingested Marijuana?

To reduce marijuana’s effects on a dog, Black said, there are a few options: Veterinarians can induce vomiting, pump a dog’s stomach or give the dog activated charcoal, which will help remove the marijuana from the dog’s system.

On average, it typically takes about 24 hours for a dog to return to normal — but it varies depending on the strength and amount of marijuana the dog has eaten.

Otten, who formerly worked as an emergency vet, joked about what he used to tell pet owners: “We're gonna take your dog in, we're gonna put him in a quiet room. We're gonna play some Led Zeppelin for him and give him some Doritos, and you can pick him up in the morning.”

How Much Does Treating Your Dog Cost?

While my own vet bill put us out $300, veterinarian John de Jong, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, said interventions like bloodwork and IV fluids could cost up to $1,000.

What About Cats?

It seems to be rarer for cats to ingest marijuana. Black said she has seen only one case involving a cat in her 17 years in emergency veterinary medicine.

While de Jong also has not seen any high cats come through his practice, he said, some cats do like to chew on plants, which could be an issue if someone is growing marijuana at home.

How Has Legalization For Humans Changed Things For Dogs?

De Jong, who is based in Massachusetts, is seeing more incidences of marijuana toxicity. Marijuana is legal for medical and recreational purposes in Massachusetts.

“In those states that have legalized marijuana, we are seeing an increased incidence of marijuana toxicity in pets, especially in dogs,” he said.

Recreational marijuana is legal in 10 states and the District of Columbia, and many more states allow medical marijuana.

Calls to the ASPCA's Animal Poison Control Center about dogs eating weed have increased sevenfold since last year, and calls to the Pet Poison Helpline have quadrupled in the past five years. A 2012 study conducted in Colorado found a significant correlation between the number of medical marijuana licenses and marijuana toxicosis cases in dogs.

In California, both Black and Otten said the changes to marijuana’s legality have not significantly increased the number of visits they get from blitzed dogs and their owners. Black said she sees up to three affected dogs a week in the summer.

What Black and Otten said has changed, however, is the potency of the drugs the dogs are consuming.

Black said that at the start of her career in emergency veterinary medicine, marijuana toxicity consisted of a dog eating the end of a joint with fairly low amounts of THC. But, she said, “we got heavier and heavier toxicities over time because of medical grade marijuana and because of edibles.”

As for Maizey, she was just fine a few days after her foray into canine cannabis. Though she once seemed interested in imaginary balls, now she has settled back into chasing real ones.

This story is part of a partnership that includes KQED, NPR and Kaiser Health News.

Kaiser Health NewsThis article was reprinted from with permission from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent news service, is a program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health care policy research organization unaffiliated with Kaiser Permanente.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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