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Sensi Magazine

The Promise of CBD for Pets

Dec 09, 2016 10:26AM ● By Leland Rucker

Just a few years ago, Dr. Steven Smolen would be the last person you might think of to prescribe a cannabis remedy for dogs. For years, Dr. Smolen, a veterinarian, dealt with animals in Montana and Colorado brought into the emergency room for symptoms of toxicity after getting into their guardian’s stash. “As a vet, I’m loud about the fact that THC is not what you want to give your dog for medicinal purposes,” he says. 

Today, Smolen runs the Animal Hospital of Telluride, and he has seen a lot of positive results in his canine patients using CBD products for pain relief, treatment of different neurological conditions, seizure control, and cancer. “The CBD thing is a whole different animal that uses the medicinal aspects of the plant,” he says. “We’re not at the point that we’re treating the animals exclusively with CBD, but it plays a role. It’s used as an adjunctive treatment for chronic pain.”

The distinction between THC and CBD is a critical one in understanding what’s going on here, especially since all forms of cannabis have been illegal and demonized on a federal level for nearly a century. The cannabis plant includes many chemical compounds called cannabinoids. Cannabinoids affect the endocannabinoid system, a group of receptors in human and animal brains involved in processes like appetite, pain sensation, mood, and memory. The best-known cannabinoid is THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, which is associated with the “high” that many users seek. Another cannabinoid is CBD, or cannabidiol, which is generally associated with the medicinal qualities people are finding in the cannabis plant.

CBD alone won’t get anyone “high.” The cannabidiol for CBD products is derived from the hemp plant. Hemp, by definition, has no more than .03 percent THC, whereas most recreational marijuana in Colorado is 16 percent THC or higher. Though some vets and nutritionists prefer products with a 20-1 CBD/THC concentration, all the people I spoke with for this piece give their pets hemp-based products with little or no THC. Veterinarians, for the most part, are leery about the benefits of CBD for animals, but, like medical doctors with humans, they are seeing more people asking about CBD biscuits, edibles, tinctures, and capsules for their pets to help treat of pain and symptoms of arthritis, seizures, anxiety, loss of appetite, separation anxiety, nausea, and other ailments.

And success stories continue to pour in. Candida Gold lives in rural Colorado with Lally, a 12-year-old shepherd/golden retriever/wolf mix who has an uncontrollable fear of thunder and lightning. Gold had visited doctors and tried everything available, including thundershirts, to calm Lally’s symptoms but found none that really worked, and the prescribed anti-anxiety drugs left the dog doped up and listless. Desperate, she began giving Lally a small dropper of CBD tincture on a piece of chicken whenever storms were around. “Where before her body would be trembling, within ten minutes she’s now lying on the floor happy and peaceful and lovely.”

I got interested in this subject after watching a friend’s arthritic, 15-year-old Chihuahua running around and playing with other dogs like she was ten years younger after getting a tiny dose of CBD oil daily. Anecdotes like these are exploding around the country, mostly from people who, like Gold, couldn’t find the relief they were seeking for their pets from mainstream medicine. So, like medical marijuana for humans, CBD treatment for animals, for the most part, is still happening outside the medical establishment. The Federal Drug Administration warns on its website that it “has not approved marijuana for any use in animals, and the agency cannot ensure the safety or effectiveness of these products. For these reasons, FDA cautions pet owners against the use of such products.”

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals lists marijuana as a toxic plant to dogs, cats, and horses, but only includes Cannabis sativa, which is high in THC and not prescribed by doctors for animals. Its website doesn’t mention CBD or hemp at all.

Most mainstream veterinarians argue for caution until more studies, research, and clinical trials are completed. Today, CBD is being championed by converted veterinarians, product manufacturers, and distributors, most of whom take a holistic approach to their patients’ welfare.

Stephen Katz is a veterinarian and Republican New York State assemblyman representing the 94th District. He sees patients regularly, mostly dogs and cats but also horses and cattle, for ailments ranging from anxiety to uncontrollable itching and mobility issues associated with arthritis and hip dysplasia.

Over the years, Katz developed various formulas for the treatment of his four-legged patients as he gained some notoriety. In 2012, the assemblyman voted against legalized marijuana in New York. Then on March 24, 2013, he was arrested with three grams of marijuana in his car. He was given a ticket, and, he says, had an epiphany that led him to rethink his treatment formulas. He developed a formula for an industrial hemp-based CBD treatment, with added trace cannabinoids and various compounds to target specific conditions. Katz partnered with Denver-based Dixie Brands to create the Therabis product line, which is sold across the country. “All of us involved in this product are dog owners,” says Joe Hodas, Dixie Brands chief marketing officer. “It makes us feel better as humans to help animals. This was a product that filled a gap. Some of the feedback we get is very emotional.”

For the Therabis line, Katz says, “CBD and cannabis form the base formula, and we’ve added other compounds to make the results even stronger for the clients.” He’s involved in a clinical study at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine on the use of cannabinoids and dogs, and the results are expected within the next year. “There are now clinical trials looking at how it might affect MS and tumor formation as well as its antimetastatic, anti-inflammatory potential capabilities,” he says. “It’s being studied intensively.” 

Smolen says he understands the reluctance of the medical establishment to endorse these medicines. “Honestly, we don’t know,” he says. “The first research is coming out, and there are so many questions about dosages and which conditions respond to it and which don’t. We don’t have a lot of data we need.”

Though most business owners say that about 30 percent of clients who give their animals CBD treatments or foods report no difference and discontinue using them, nobody I spoke with has encountered any negative side effects. “Since it’s fairly benign, people are using it anyway. You can use it and not feel like you’re going to hurt anything,” Smolen says. Still, it’s important that people know what they’re getting. Which, until we have solid standards and regulations and more research, is an ongoing concern. 

Debbie Cokes is CEO of Olathe, Colorado-based RxCBD, a line of pet products for dogs, cats, horses, and rats. “Pet owners should know when they read a label what the concentration of CBD is,” she says. “Right now in the CBD arena, sometimes I can’t even tell what the correct dosage of a specific product should be.”

Many people who give their pets her products are facing challenges that haven’t been addressed by traditional medicines. Still, she takes a conservative approach when it comes to dosing recommendations. “We always provide a diluted product,” Cokes says. “We aren’t vets. We talk to vets and encourage them. We have drawn a line in the sand and recommend a moderate dosage. We won’t go past that.”

Smolen agrees that standard dosage levels and regulations are necessary. As it is, he collaborates with other veterinarians using CBD. “It’s helped in developing dosages for pain management. When it comes to dosages for cancer and neurological disorders, we’re still shooting from the hip. There’s a lot more info we need to better use it.”

Cokes gets requests from guardians who have pets that have been diagnosed with cancer and have few options left. She explains that CBD products can offer some relief but cautions against promising more than can be expected. “It is doing the cannabis industry and customers a disservice to overpromise, especially since the research is not yet there.”

The most important first step is to get everyone, vets and guardians and the general public, to understand the difference between THC and CBD. “We’re in the embryonic stages in regard to veterinary medicine, and Colorado and California are 20 years ahead of everybody else,” says Katz. “It’s all a matter of education. My task and responsibility for the next few years is to educate my colleagues and the public.”

Cokes hopes that the industry will begin collaborating in Colorado to come up with standards, oversight, and regulations that let consumers know exactly what they’re getting. “The National Hemp Association, among others, is encouraging development of standards that are robust enough to hopefully establish some degree of self-regulation. It will make our industry stronger and be a service to consumers.”