When our Canaan dog, Cleo, was in her super-golden years (18 and 19), she suffered from arthritis. Yes, her diet was optimal. She was getting plenty of quality rest. I gave her appropriate supplements. She got exercise appropriate to her age and ability. I regularly used TTouch and massage to help ease her pain. And yet, sometimes, she needed something more.

Eventually, I turned to dog-specific cannabis to ease her discomfort. When July 4 rolled around last year, I gave Barkley, our English Shepherd, doggy cannabis to help reduce his anxiety over the fireworks. For both Cleo and Barkley, I noticed a tremendous improvement in their quality of life. And I’m not the only one. A study published in the Journal of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association (JAHVMA) in 2016 found over half of dog owners surveyed said they currently use a hemp product for their dog. Over ¾ of the owners who give their dogs hemp use it for an illness or condition diagnosed by their dog’s veterinarian (most frequently for seizures, cancer, anxiety, and arthritis).

Dogs running

Top reasons pet parents used canine cannabis

According to the study, the most-cited reasons dog owners decided to use a cannabis product for their pet were:

  • They liked the idea product came from natural sources
  • They thought the product would work as an adjunct to other therapies
  • The cost of the product
  • They preferred hemp products to conventional medicines

How canine cannabis works

It’s really no surprise to me that so many pet parents have reported such great success with using cannabis products for their dogs. Both marijuana and hemp contain plant-based chemicals known as cannabinoids, including THCA and CBDA (which become THC and CBD when processed appropriately). Dogs have the same natural cannabinoid receptors in their brains and peripheral nervous systems as people do. These receptors, which are part of the endocannabinoid system (side note: scientists have found that all vertebrates have an endocannabinoid system), are involved with various physiological processes, such as appetite, pain sensation, memory, and even mood. Not only that, but the endocannabinoid system and cannabinoids are part of how our dogs’ bodies fight inflammation. As you may know, researchers are starting to realize that inflammation is the root cause of most chronic diseases, including arthritis and cancer. CBD has been shown to help address inflammation, which is vital when it comes to addressing the root cause of many chronic diseases.

Marijuana or cannabis?

Now, we’re used to the term “medical marijuana.” But when pet owners buy cannabis products for their dogs, what they’re actually getting is hemp, not marijuana. One of the biggest differences between hemp and marijuana is the amount of THC (which is what gets you “high”) vs CBD. Marijuana often has between 10 and 15% THC, with some strains going as high as 20% THC. Hemp, on the other hand, can’t have more than 0.3% THC. And 0.3% THC isn’t nearly enough to get your dog (or you!) high.

Not only does hemp have much less THC than marijuana, it also has much more CBD. This is important, because CBD is what helps address these chronic health issues—it’s what actually provides the therapeutic effects so many pet parents report seeing. So, while you may read things referring to medical marijuana for dogs, or hear people talking about buying medical marijuana products for their dogs, what they mean (as long as they’re using products specifically designed for canines, from reputable companies) is hemp.

Dog on beach

Limitations of canine cannabis

If you’re thinking about using canine cannabis for your dog, there are a few things to keep in mind.

First, as with many herbs and herbal medicines, you may not see any reduction in symptoms immediately. Sometimes, it may take a few days to notice any significant changes.

Second, I want to caution you that cannabis is not a “magic pill.” It’s most helpful if you’re already supporting your dog with:

Cannabis is a supplement, and it should be treated as such.

Also, note that if you give your dog cannabis, the most commonly reported side effect is that it can make your dog drowsy (similar to how you might feel if you took a Benadryl). If your dog exhibits other side effects, such as becoming really itchy, vomiting, becoming disoriented, or acting excessively hyper (these are all rare but have been reported), don’t give your dog any more cannabis.

Is canine cannabis dangerous?

While THC can be dangerous to dogs, no studies have shown CBD to be harmful. Most of the canine cannabis treats on the market are virtually THC-free. This makes them much safer for dogs, and it also means they are not psychoactive. In other words, when you give your dog a cannabis treat specifically designed for dogs, your dog isn’t “getting high.” What your dog does seem to be getting, based on anecdotal evidence, is assistance with a variety of issues, such as arthritis (like for our dog Cleo), help with anxiety (like for Barkley), or help relieving pain associated with cancer (like for many humans with cancer who use medical marijuana for pain relief).

The endocannabinoid system

While dogs have an endocannabinoid system like people do, they actually metabolize cannabinoids differently than us. Dogs’ primary messenger cannabinoids are known as 2-AG and anandamide, which activate CB1 and CB2 receptors. CBD binds to these receptors for a relatively long amount of time, but the bond isn’t strong. This means the therapeutic response lasts for quite a while, but it doesn’t result in toxic side effects. Furthermore, studies have found that when CBD is administered orally to dogs, there is a relatively low bioavailability. That’s a good thing—it suggests the risk for systemic toxicity is low in dogs. Eventually, your dog’s liver eliminates the CBD through the urine or bile, ensuring it’s flushed out of your dog’s system. Studies have found the CBD is completely cleared from the body in about 17 hours.

This is great news, particularly given that so many conventional medications have negative side effects. For so many pet parents, cannabis for their dogs is proving to be hugely beneficial at addressing their dog’s chronic health issues. And, it’s doing it without toxic side effects. In fact, as long as you provide the correct dosage of CBD for your dog and don’t give them THC, there are no life-threatening side effects to medical cannabis for canines.

Canine cannabis vs. conventional drugs

Unlike many conventional drugs, medical cannabis products for canines don’t damage the liver, the kidneys, the GI tract, or any other body systems. It’s important to make sure you don’t give your dog THC, of course. Ingesting marijuana high in THC (for example, in edibles intended for human consumption) has been fatal to a number of dogs. So, be mindful you only give your dog cannabis products specifically designed for canines. Also, make sure you follow the dosing instructions carefully.

Where to buy canine cannabis

There are some really good companies out there that sell cannabis products specifically for dogs. Among them are Canna-Pet, CannaCompanion (that’s the company I’ve used for my own dogs), Canna4Pets, and Treat Well. Do your research before purchasing any CBD products for your dog. Visit the manufacturer’s website, read reviews, and check the ingredients. If you’re working with an animal naturopath or holistic veterinarian, talk to them about CBD products for your dog.

It’s true that more study is needed when it comes to cannabis use in dogs. Increasingly, though, people are realizing it may have a place in addressing chronic issues. If you have a dog with chronic health issues, you might consider CBD supplementation. Used correctly, it can have a profoundly positive impact on the overall well-being of your dog.

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