Veterinarians explain the benefits, the risks, and how to choose in a growing market of products.

By Amy Shojai
February 11, 2020

Medical marijuana, hemp, and CBD oil have many benefits for humans, and they're all derivatives of the cannabis plant. In total, the flowers of the cannabis plant may contain more than 100 different compounds, and cannabadiol (known as CBD) oil most commonly appears in pet supplements. But does that mean you should give your pet CBD to treat anything from anxiety to pain? While many of the benefits that humans experience from taking CBD do translate for dogs and cats, it's important to be educated before treating your pet with it.

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What Is CBD?

Both marijuana and hemp are members of the cannabis family of plants. However, their definitions are based on the content of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), explains Rob Silver, DVM, holistic veterinarian and founder of NurseYourPet.com. THC is the psychotropic component that produces the marijuana "high" and is a controlled substance. Hemp refers to the industrial cannabis product used for rope, textiles, and other products. To be defined as hemp, it may contain no more than 0.3 percent of THC. CBD oil from hemp is just as effective, and it's considered safer for pets. In other words, your pet won't get "high" from CBD oil products derived from hemp. Your pets should never be given human products or they could risk being poisoned.

Dogs are highly sensitive to THC. In the places where medical or recreational use of marijuana has become legal, marijuana toxicity in pets has become a common emergency poisoning, says veterinary pain specialist Robin Downing, DVM, from DowningCenter.com. Some pets have died from eating marijuana-laced chocolate treats. Dr. Silver says poisoned dogs display static ataxia where the affected dog stands in a stiff posture, paws widespread, and can't move except to rock back and forth. High doses increases toxicity, and affected dogs will often fall over and soil themselves.

How CBD Oil Can Help Pets

Cats and dogs have cannabinoid receptors throughout their bodies. Experts believe CBD oil has the potential for numerous benefits. Some CBD oil supplements for pets tout helping issues including pain relief (such as arthritis), soothing inflammation, controlling seizures, anxiety relief (such as separation anxiety), managing nausea, and stimulating appetite.

How to Give CBD Supplements

Unfortunately, very few studies offer clear dosage guidance for veterinarians, which makes it hard for professionals to make recommendations, says Dr. Downing. Stephen Cital, a registered veterinary technician, anesthesia expert, and director of education and development at ElleVetSciences.com, says at least five published studies showed both cats and dogs benefited from the tested hemp products. They were most effective when given with a meal. The proper dose may pose a challenge with some products. Pets can't tell us when "enough" is enough for pain relief, for example, but Dr. Downing says you should see a positive effect pretty quickly. Follow the dosing recommendations on the pet-specific product. Different pets may show individual improvements in different ways, such as feeling more calm in the face of a thunderstorm. While some products are not inexpensive, they are high quality and "you get what you pay for."

Choosing CBD Products for Pets

Always ask your veterinarian for advice, but understand that legal issues may make them reluctant to recommend specific products. Marijuana is not legal in most states and is still illegal at the federal level. As of January 2020, Cital explains that California is the first and only state that has adopted laws protecting veterinarians from being penalized for discussing the use of marijuana with clients for their pets. Still, veterinarians are restricted from profiting from the recommendation of a marijuana product. Dr. Downing believes this tool could help pet pain. "Yet, we also have an ethical obligation to adhere to best practices," he says. "That means knowing that what we give our patients is safe and effective."

When choosing a CBD product, be on the lookout for red flags. Avoid products with misspelled words on the label, no phone number to call to ask question, or that specify they are for people. The product should state that it's for a dog or cat (and not a human product), some indication of strength of formulation, recommended dosage, and a phone number or website for further detailed information. Lastly, look for a certificate of analysis. "This is a way for a producer to affirm and assure the public that what they produce is consistent, not contaminated, and has a specific concentration of active ingredients," Dr. Downing explains. "Reliable companies are interested in acquiring and repeating independent analyses." And, of course, if it's a yummy treat, you won't have to force feed a pill.

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