Veterinarians Seeing Many Types of Marijuana Exposure

By Mary Ellen Finley, MS, DVM
Emergency/Critical Care at SAGE Redwood City
With the legalization of both medicinal and recreational marijuana, veterinarians are seeing more cases of pets getting into their parents’ stash. The ready availability of high-grade product, as well as concentrated oils and butters, has increased the impact of these exposures. Dogs are the most frequent patients we see for marijuana exposure. We rarely see exposure in cats because of their fastidious eating habits.
Where There is Smoke…
But ingestion is not the only way pets can be exposed to marijuana – they can also be affected by inhaling smoke. Clients regularly ask veterinarians if there is a safe dose of marijuana for pets, but there are very few studies in veterinary medicine for us to reference. Because of the lack of scientific research on marijuana and pets, veterinarians can’t define the mechanism of action, or exactly what the biochemical interactions are in animals. We do know that dogs appear to be very sensitive to even low doses of THC and the cannabinoids. And we know that cannabinoids have less psychogenic effects than THC, but can still produce effects at higher doses. This is why any exposure is considered potentially toxic.
Common signs of marijuana toxicity include: sedation, low heart rate, dilated pupils, ataxia (uncoordinated “drunk” like walk), hyperesthesia (high sensitivity to light, noise or sudden movements), low body temperature and urinary dribbling. A 2012 study revealed a recent increase in stimulatory signs that could include agitation, tremors, shaking, twitching, elevated body temperature, and seizures. The more THC content a product has, the more intense these symptoms can be.
Treatment Overview
Marijuana toxicity is a concern, but the good news is death from exposure is rare. If you think your pet may have been exposed to marijuana or THC containing compounds, or if they are showing any of the signs discussed here, please seek veterinary attention immediately. Diagnosing marijuana toxicity is usually based on clinical signs and known or suspected exposure. Human tests are unreliable in dogs. Be honest with your veterinarian about possible exposure —  the information you provide may help us to distinguish between a toxic exposure and other, more serious neurological conditions. We will not judge you, and there are no legal ramifications.
If your pet has had recent exposure and is still alert your veterinarian will likely try to induce vomiting to eliminate the toxin. This is not always successful as marijuana has anti-nausea properties. Treatment may include activated charcoal to bind the toxin and prevent further absorption. Sometimes repeat doses of activated charcoal are needed as THC recirculates in the intestinal system. If your pet is already showing clinical signs it may be unsafe to make them vomit. Activated charcoal may still be used in some cases. For mild cases your veterinarian will likely give your pet fluids under the skin to ensure they stay hydrated, and send them home for further observation. In most cases, symptoms will resolve in 12-24 hours with mild residual symptoms lasting as long as 48-72 hours.
For more serious cases, such as tremors, low heart rate and elevated body temperature your veterinarian will likely recommend in-hospital monitoring. This may include intravenous fluids and drugs to support heart rate and blood pressure if needed. For severely affected cases a novel therapy called intralipid may be recommended as an injection. This was first discovered in people as an antidote to lidocaine toxicity and has been used successfully with several other categories of drugs.
As with any toxicity, the best treatment is prevention. If you have these products in your home please keep them away from your pets. But, if your pet gets into things they shouldn’t the good news is that with appropriate treatment, most exposures are not fatal and will have no long-term consequences.
What About Over-the-Counter CBD Products?
Many pet owners use over-the-counter CBD products for a variety of conditions. Although there is no scientific research that shows the benefits of these products for any medical condition in veterinary medicine, many pet owners feel that they help. While toxicities associated with these products are rare, they should be used with caution. These products are not regulated so the actual content and concentration are not verified. Side effects would be expected to be primarily sedation, potentially serious at high doses. If you are interested in using these products please discuss their use with your veterinarian. It is very important not to use them in place of data-based treatment for serious conditions such as seizures until further research is done.

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