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Medicinal Cannabis & Animals

Updated: Mar 16, 2021

Anyone with half an eye on the natural medicine arena cannot failed to have noticed the explosion of hemp products coming onto the market here in Australia. From hempseed oil and hemp protein shakes, to the medicinal cannabis now being prescribed for a variety of conditions in humans, the cannabis industry in Australia has gone from zero to sixty in a pretty short timeframe. But what about our veterinary patients? Is the cannabis plant and it’s many products useful to them as well? Absolutely, and, just like in people, there are a variety of ways we can utilise its benefits depending on what our furry friends particular needs are.

What is Cannabis?

Cannabis, or Cannabis sativa to give it the proper Latin name, is one of the oldest plants to be cultivated and used by humans on the planet. Evidence from Ancient China, India and Japan as well as Egypt, Greece and Rome shows that people across the world used it widely for making clothing, for spiritual practices and also as a medicine. In fact, right up until the 1900’s Cannabis was a valued part of every physicians arsenal used for treating conditions as diverse as digestive issues and skin problems to anxiety and depression.

Why can Cannabis be used as a medicine?

The Cannabis plant produces a variety of molecules known as cannabinoids, the most well known of which are CBD (cannabidiol) and THC (tetrahydrocannabidiol). These chemicals act on a particular body signalling pathway found in almost all animals; the Endocannabinoid System, which has a role in almost every part of the body from the nervous system to the immune system. Because of it’s fundamental role in normal body function, manipulating the endocannabinoid system using the molecules from the cannabis plant can be incredibly beneficial in a variety of health conditions. Cannabis also contains a variety of other plant molecules, including a large number of terpenes, the same group of molecules found in essential oils which have a further range of beneficial effects on the body.

What is the difference between Hemp and Cannabis?

This is where things get confusing. Hemp and Cannabis are basically the same plant – Cannabis sativa as I mentioned above. However, just like a chihuahua and a Great Dane are both dogs, but are vastly different in features, there are also significant differences between Hemp plants and Cannabis plants.

Hemp is grown mostly as a plant used to make fibres for clothing and other materials, and increasingly the seeds are being used as a health food. It is an excellent soil cleaner as well, and has been used across the globe to clean soils of heavy metals and other toxins after some sort of insult. Hemp contains only very small amounts of the active cannabinoids such as CBD and THC, and therefore from a therapeutic perspective isn’t particularly useful as a medicine.

Cannabis on the other hand, when talking about the therapeutic form, is incredibly helpful as a medicine, since it contains high levels of the cannabinoids CBD and THC. Different strains vary in the concentrations of these molecules, as well as the concentrations of other cannabinoids and terpenes, with particular diseases responding better to different levels or ratios of the CBD and THC.

There is also a blurry area where you find products labelled as Hemp CBD Oil – these products are becoming particularly common online. They are somewhat of a hybrid, containing some CBD, but very little THC. From a therapeutic perspective they can be helpful, though they are never as potent as the true medical cannabis described above.

Which Hemp or Cannabis products can I use for my pets?

Hemp Products

· Hemp Seed Oil - Hemp seed oil is a wonderful source of balanced Omega 3 fatty acids, which are incredibly important in body function, are a source of energy and also hold anti-inflammatory properties. I use hemp seed oil for animals to bolster skin and joint health alongside a variety of other supplements, herbs and medications. Be careful to source high quality hempseed oil, grown organically and ideally screened for heavy metal levels given what we know about hemp’s ability to suck up toxins from the soil.

· Hemp Protein – this is growing in popularity as a protein source in a variety of dog treats as well as in horse feeds. Similar to hempseed oil, care needs to be taken with regards sourcing to ensure the product does not contain toxins.

· Hemp dog beds, collars, leads, clothing are soft and comfortable, and also have natural antimicrobial properties, something potentially very useful for our furry friends.

Medicinal Cannabis Products

For animals who are sick, or diagnosed with a particular health problem (see below), then medicinal cannabis is the product you should opt for, obviously working with your vet in doing so. At present, the only cannabis products that can be legally used in animals MUST contain at least 98% CBD and less than 2% THC as a percentage of the total cannabinoids. This means that many of the medical grade human products are not suitable, since they, in general have a higher level of THC contained within them.

I recommend using only veterinarian sourced, prescription only CBD products for your animals, and working under the guidance of a vet at all times in terms of dosing.

I would never advocate using internet sourced products in animals, since many are incredibly variable and don’t actually contain the levels of CBD they claim to. They may also contain contaminants and vary from batch to batch. Many companies also try and add in other herbal supplements alongside the CBD (mushrooms are one of the most common) which can often have toxic effects in animals and make your fur friend sicker instead of better.

When should I consider Medicinal Cannabis for my pet?

The use of medicinal cannabis is, at present, still in it’s infancy in the veterinary world. Whilst many veterinarians way back in history used it to treat a variety of conditions similar to their human physician counterparts, they didn’t perform any scientific studies to show how it worked, or what it worked best for. Teams around the globe are now set on performing these studies, but as with anything, these things take time. To date, we have small study evidence for the use of Medicinal Cannabis/CBD Oil, being helpful in treating osteoarthritis and seizures in dogs. In humans we have evidence for benefits of cannabis use in conditions such as chronic pain, anxiety, inflammatory disease and neurodegenerative conditions, as well as lab based studies showing beneficial effects in treating cancer.

As a veterinarian I consider the use of medicinal cannabis in all chronic disease cases, but particularly for osteoarthritis, intervertebral disc disease and epilepsy, since this is where the greatest evidence lies. However, I have also used it for animals suffering with chronic gut disorders, anxiety, cancers as well as difficult cases of atopic dermatitis. The cannabis is generally an adjunct to other therapies (both conventional and alternative) but can be used as a sole treatment in certain cases. At present I source medical grade cannabis from a compounding pharmacy who are then responsible for sending it directly to the client and do NOT keep any at the clinic.

Is Medicinal Cannabis safe?

Pure medical grade CBD Oil has an excellent safety profile in the animal studies completed to date. Animals given doses wildly more than ever used therapeutically showed minimal, if any side effects in contrast to many conventional drugs used to treat the conditions we can now consider CBD for. Noted side effects of high dose CBD in one study in dogs, were a transient diarrhoea, red ears and an increase in liver enzymes but without any obvious detriment to liver function. Studies looking at animals being treated with normal clinical doses of cannabis showed even fewer, if any side effects.

Human products containing high levels of THC such as brownies laced with cannabis, have provided sporadic reports of toxicity, but in general these were to the effects of the other ingredients found in the product. On its own, high dose THC may cause a transient condition known as Static Ataxia in dogs, but this resolves as the THC is broken down by the liver.

Personally I would never consider prescribing something I was concerned about causing harm to my patients. The way in which CBD in particular works in the body, as well as the studies done so far suggest that it is a relatively safe option to consider as part of the treatment options for many diseases. In fact, when compared to the known side effects of common pain killer medications, (diarrhoea, kidney and liver disease, gut ulceration) the safety profile of CBD is considerably better. In cases where the evidence is less clear whether it will help, I consider whether it will do harm (generally unlikely) and what other alternative options there are for treatment. Providing this information to an owner then allows them to decide the best route for their particular pet in the given situation.

I want to try treating my pet with cannabis – how can i do this?

If the information above has made you curious whether or not medicinal cannabis could help your pet, then get in touch. If you are in South East Queensland then we can book a consultation for me to assess your pet and see whether or not cannabis is the right option. If you are elsewhere in Australia then I can help direct you to a friendly local veterinarian used to prescribing cannabis, or discuss with your own vet the best way of going about prescribing for your pet.

See you next time! :-)

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