Pot for pets: Here’s how vets and others say it can help

Brad Stottlemyer, 65 of Dearborn Heights with his 11-year-old chocolate lab mix Misty in their home on Thursday, March 7, 2019. Misty has bone cancer in her right front bone joint and the Essential CBD pet drops, a marijuana-based product has helped her not limp as much and become more active. The dog is also on medicine in pill form to help with her bone cancer. (Photo: Eric Seals, Detroit Free Press)

By Kathleen Gray, Detroit Free Press Lansing Bureau

Last summer, Brad Stottelmyer called his 11-year-old dog Misty “Four Paws Walking,” a gallows tribute to the nickname that death-row inmates are given as they await their execution.

The 77-pound chocolate Labrador retriever, whose dark brown coat is flecked with gray, was hobbled last spring by bone cancer in her right front leg. The pain meds prescribed by Stottelmyer’s veterinarian weren’t providing much relief for Misty as the pooch limped around their Dearborn Heights home and yard, tucking her paw underneath her leg and resting her snout on the stricken limb.

So Stottlemyer began to plan for a pet owner’s worst nightmare, putting down his constant companion. But as a medical marijuana cardholder, who uses weed and cannabidiol (CBD) to ease the pain from a back injury he suffered at his former job preparing apartments for lease, he had one more trick up his sleeve.

He found CBD-infused oils designed for pets at his local medical marijuana dispensary and started feeding Misty 300 milligrams three times a day as well as rubbing the oil into the dog’s stricken shoulder joint.

By July, he had quadrupled the dose to 1200 milligrams three times a day and that seemed to do the trick for Misty, who has gone from a death sentence last year to now bounding around the yard, chasing squirrels and sniffing a neighbor’s boulder for any sign of a new pup on the block. The cancer hasn’t retreated, Stottelmyer said, but it also hasn’t spread and the CBD — which does not cause a high — has provided Misty with pain relief.

“It was the best Christmas present I got,” Stottelmyer said. “These things are really working for her.”.

A growing market for the marijuana industry

Misty is just one of an untold number of customers in a relatively new, but growing market — pot for pets.

These aren’t the edibles or oils that contain THC — tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive compound in marijuana that provides the “high” in humans — although there are some products being sold that contain low doses of THC. These are hemp-based products that provide relief for all sorts of doggie ailments, from arthritis to cancer to anxiety.

And in an industry where pet owners spend an estimated $72 billion a year in the United States on supplies, veterinarian bills and medications, according to the American Pet Products Association, some experts believe the next big thing for doting dog owners is cannabis.

There aren’t many scientific studies about the benefits of CBD for pets, but researchers at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine published a study last summer showing that 80 percent of a small sample of dogs showed pain relief and increased mobility after two to four weeks of CBD treatment. Colorado State University also is working on a clinical trial that is showing early positive results of treating epileptic dogs with CBD.

Word of mouth also is boosting the business, According to BDS Analytics, a Colorado-based cannabis research firm, more than $7 million in cannabis-based products for pets were sold in marijuana dispensaries in California, Colorado, Oregon and Washington in 2017. The products range from oils and tinctures to rubs and biscuits.

And it doesn’t get much more mainstream than lifestyle guru Martha Stewart, who became an adviser last month to Canopy Growth, a Canadian cannabis company, to help develop a line of pot-infused products for people and pets.

“It’s going to be huge. I think it’s just starting and when we look at the amount of pets in this country, there are 90 million dogs alone. If you look at the percentage of people who spend over $1,000 a year on vet bills, that’s 40 million people,” said Caroline Coile, the author of 34 books about dogs, including “Cannabis and CBD Science for Pets” and the owner of eight Salukis and a Jack Russell Terrier mix. “It’s a huge market right now. It’s gone mainstream.”

The legal uncertainty over CBD-infused products

But the legal gray cloud that hangs over CBD-infused products for humans extends to animals even more. While Congress passed the farm bill late last year, which, in part, legalized hemp, the product derived from cannabis plants that contains nearly undetectable levels of THC, the guidelines to regulate the growth, processing and transportation of the plant haven’t been fully developed yet.

The uncertainty means many vets who believe cannabis can be beneficial for pets remain silent about using it to treat animals. Only California has a law, passed last year, that allows vets to talk about CBD-infused products, but not prescribe or sell them. In other states, even where marijuana is legal for medical and adult use, pot for pets remains a verboten subject at worst and only whispered at best.

In Michigan, where regulations have only addressed cannabis consumption for humans, the market for pets hasn’t been a focus for the state, said Andrew Brisbo, director of the state Bureau of Marijuana Regulation.

“With the passage of the industrial hemp bills as well as the language of the 2018 ballot initiative (that legalized recreational pot in Michigan), we’re working closely with MDARD (Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development) on how industrial hemp products will be regulated in this market,” he said.

Commercial sales for the recreational market won’t happen until early next year after the state develops the rules and regulations that will govern the market and begins handing out licenses to pot businesses. Those rules may also address CBD-based products for both humans and pets.

Without specific rules, that leaves the CBD-infused products for pets a mostly online business, although some pet products are also being sold in medical marijuana dispensaries and health food stores. A check with the big pet supply chains revealed that CBD-based products aren’t on their shelves, yet.

Shayna Palinkas, manager of the Bloom City dispensary in Ann Arbor, has consulted with customers about cannabis for pets. She has used some products to help her arthritic dog, who has since died, and her mother used a CBD product that also had a low level of THC to transition her dog off the canine-version of the opioid painkiller Tramadol.

“We recommend CBD to start,” she said. “A lot of our customers talk about trying to relieve arthritis pain in older dogs, or alleviating the symptoms from cancer. And some have anxious dogs and they want the CBD for that.”

Melody Simmons, a Ypsilanti resident, was at Bloom City last week looking for relief for both herself and her mixed breed mutt Lucy. She was intrigued to learn more about a gel that could be rubbed on the inside of a dog’s ear for quicker relaxing results.

“I used CBD for my dog, for sure,” Simmons said. “After an eye dropper with about 10 milligrams (of CBD), she seems to really calm down.”

But neither Simmons nor Stottelmyer heard about the benefits of CBD from their veterinarians. Because of ambiguity about CBD-infused products, which until the farm bill passed were still considered a Schedule 1, illegal drug by the federal government, vets don’t want to risk their licenses by talking about the products.

Dr. Christian Ast, a Farmington veterinarian and vice president of the Michigan Veterinary Medical Association, said the lack of rigorous scientific data and the legal cloud surrounding CBD products has veterinarians reluctant to delve into that marketplace.

“It puts vets in an awkward position because we want to make pets feel better and there’s some anecdotal evidence that it works,” he said. “I have many clients who ask me about CBD oil and I’ll share with them my concerns about the safety of the product, but much beyond that, we tend not to discuss it.”

That’s not to say that vets don’t want to be more open about options for pets, he added. “If it’s an opportunity to alleviate pain, we should be able to prescribe it. But from a legal standpoint, I want to be on solid footing. I could absolutely put my license at risk if I prescribe it.”

And that needs to change, said Dr. Rob Silver, a Colorado veterinarian who says he went from “pothead to prophet” after using acupuncture to treat pain in dogs early in his career and then seeing the benefits of pot from pet owners who told him they had “shared their stash with Fido.”

“It’s a big problem right now,” he said. “With all the marijuana legalization passing in state after state, you’re allowing physicians to recommend the use of medical marijuana. But because it’s still a Schedule 1 drug on a federal basis (for THC-infused products), and veterinary licenses are reviewed at a state and federal level, vets are prohibited from even talking about it.”

He’d like to see vets have the ability to consult with pet owners to ensure that they know the benefits and differences between CBD-infused products versus THC-laced products and to make sure their dogs don’t overindulge. While there have been two deaths of small dogs from THC intoxication reported in the early days of Colorado’s legalization of pot, there haven’t been any deaths reported in the last five years, according to the Poison Pet Helpline, a Minnesota-based emergency hotline for pet owners.

When marijuana legalization passes in a state, “the first thing you see is that veterinary offices are being deluged with dogs who are overdosing on THC from well-meaning owners who don’t know proper dosages, or they’re leaving their edibles out and the dogs are getting into them or you’re at a party and some people, unfortunately, think it’s funny to get the dog high. … And dogs do not like to be high. THC just unbalances them.”

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