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Vets Are Seeing a Rise in “Pot Puppies”

You aren’t the only one getting way too high from edibles. A study published on 4/20 found an uptick in cannabis poisonings in pets.

by Avery Felman
April 26, 2022
A dog laying down looking sad.
Guille Faingold / Stocksy

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The legalization of marijuana in many states has yielded largely productive results: A more open 4/20 celebration, with happy, giggling people like Seth Rogan taking to Instagram to share their favorite strains and paraphernalia; less stigma around the substance; and a larger group being qualified to reap the medicinal benefits of good old-fashioned pot. However, not all of the effects have been as positive, perhaps the most consequential of which (at least to pet lovers) is the sharp spike in instances of cannabis poisoning in pets.

Dr. Tasia Ludwik, a critical care specialist at the University of Minnesota’s Veterinary Medical Center, told HealthDay, “We have seen an increase [in cannabis poisoning] in the past five years or so,” surmising the hospital sees an average of “five or six cases a week.” Dr. Elizabeth Rozanski, a critical care veterinarian at Tufts University’s Foster Hospital for Small Animals, added that vets can spot the signs and symptoms of a “pot puppy” — “They usually come in stumbling, disoriented and dribbling urine.”

Why is cannabis poisoning in pets on the rise?

Why did weed legalization lead to a sudden uptick in cases, you might be wondering? Well, the answer is pretty cut and dry, but not in the way you might expect. In a new study, published online on April 20 (naturally) in the journal PLOS ONE, 40% of vets reported an increase in marijuana poisonings. Dr. Jibran Khokhar, PhD, the senior researcher on the study, told HealthDay, “When it was illegal, it was harder to get them to admit. They thought we would report it to the police — which we wouldn’t.” More people feel comfortable taking their pet to the veterinarian, even when they’re zonked out of their minds and likely in a fear mindset, because they don’t worry about legal repercussions. Plus, if more people are partaking in the drug due to its newfound legality, there’s bound to be more reports of pets getting into their parent’s pot brownies.

Thankfully, in most instances of cannabis poisoning, the recovery rate is extremely high (no pun intended). In the rare instances of death, it’s difficult to know whether the marijuana was responsible or other toxic ingredients of the tasty treat the marijuana was baked into that likely attracted your pet. However, if you have any suspicion that your pet has ingested marijuana you should treat it as an emergency and get them to the vet as soon as possible. You should never induce vomiting or waste time Googling home remedies (even if it’s tempting to stay in with your unfinished bag of Cheetos). Ahead, two veterinarians, Dr. Rania Gollakner and Dr. Lynn Buzhardt, break down everything you need to know about cannabis poisoning in pets.

How do cats and dogs become intoxicated?

Dr. Gollakner: Cats and dogs can become intoxicated by cannabis in various ways: by inhaling second-hand smoke, eating edibles (baked goods, candies, chocolate bars, and chips containing cannabis), or ingesting cannabis directly (in any form). Most exposures are accidental when curious pets discover access to the drug or when they are present in the same room with a person smoking cannabis. Dogs have more cannabinoid receptors in their brains, which means the effects of cannabis are more dramatic and potentially more toxic when compared to humans. A small amount of cannabis is all it takes to cause toxicity in cats and dogs.

Regardless of the method of exposure, accurate and complete information is imperative to treating the patient successfully. For example, ingestion of a ’pot brownie’ needs different treatment than inhalation, because eating the brownie requires treatment for cannabis and chocolate toxicity, whereas inhalation may require additional treatment for respiratory irritation.

How does cannabis affect cats and dogs?

Dr. Gollakner: Like most drugs, the effects of cannabis are based on chemistry. The drug enters the body via inhalation or ingestion and binds with specific neuroreceptors in the brain, altering normal neurotransmitter function. THC interacts with neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine, dopamine, serotonin, and acetylcholine. Humans and pets have two types of receptors in their bodies. One type, CB1, affects the central nervous system, and the other, CB2, affects the peripheral tissues. Although not all the pharmacologic mechanisms triggered by cannabinoids have been identified, it is thought that CB1 is responsible for most of the effects of cannabis.

Everything that enters the body has to exit the body. THC is very lipid-soluble, which means that it is easily stored in the fatty tissue of the liver, brain, and kidneys before being eliminated from the body. THC is metabolized in the liver and the majority (65-90%) is excreted in the feces, while a small percentage (10-35%) is eliminated through the kidneys. The drug has to be metabolized and excreted for the effects to wear off.

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How toxic is cannabis?

Dr. Gollakner: Cannabis is considered to have a high margin of safety for people; however, not all people — and certainly not all pets — follow a single pattern of intoxication. A small amount may affect one pet more than another, so there is no official safe level of exposure. Differences in age, health status, and body size are some of the factors that can lead to toxicity differences.

Luckily, cannabis intoxication is seldom fatal. The average joint contains about 150 mg of THC. The minimum lethal oral dose of THC in pets is fairly high; however, deaths have been noted after ingestion of foods containing highly concentrated cannabis, such as medical-grade THC. In fact, fatalities were very rare until the development of medical-grade products.

What are the signs of cannabis intoxication?

Dr. Buzhardt: Many of the signs of intoxication are neurological. Pets may become wobbly and uncoordinated. They may be hyperactive, disoriented, and very vocal. Their pupils may dilate, giving them a wild-eyed appearance, and they may drool excessively or vomit. They may also develop urinary incontinence (i.e., urine leakage). In severe cases, tremors, seizures, and coma can result.

Physical signs include low or elevated heart rate and blood pressure and slowed respiration rate (breathing rate). Lethargy and increases or decreases in body temperature may also be observed. Fortunately, these side effects are usually short-lived, but they can still be dangerous and make the pet quite miserable.

How is intoxication diagnosed?

Dr. Buzhardt: Diagnosis is based on an accurate history and clinical signs. Although there are tests to determine the level of THC in the urine, the results take time, making them impractical. Human urine drug-screening tests are quicker but are not dependable in pets. The diagnosis is made much more quickly, and treatment initiated, when responsible pet owners provide accurate information regarding the pet’s exposure.

How is intoxication treated?

Dr. Buzhardt: When a toxin enters the body, often the first line of defense is to get it out. If the toxicity is discovered shortly after ingestion, your veterinarian may induce vomiting to prevent further absorption of the toxin. Two factors may interfere with this early defensive strategy. First, the signs of toxicity may manifest only after the drug has been absorbed, meaning it is already in the system. Second, cannabis has an antiemetic effect that inhibits vomiting. In life-threatening cases, the stomach may be pumped (gastric lavage). Activated charcoal may be administered every six to eight hours to neutralize the toxin. Enemas are also used to reduce toxin absorption from the GI tract.

The second line of defense in cannabis toxicity involves providing supportive care until the effects of the drug wear off. Medications and supportive care to regulate the pet’s heart rate, respiration, and body temperature are used if needed. Since the pet may be lethargic, with no desire to eat or drink, IV fluids can help prevent dehydration, support blood pressure, and maintain organ function. Anti-anxiety medications can minimize agitation. To prevent self-trauma while the pet is disoriented and uncoordinated, confinement in a safe, comfortable space is helpful. Noise should be kept to a minimum to decrease sensory stimulation.

The bottom line.

The bottom line, when it comes to cannabis use and pets, is similar to that with other drugs in the home: Be careful. Keep all forms of cannabis, medical or recreational, out of reach of your pet. Consider storage in high cabinets or in locked drawers when not in use. Keep pets in a separate and well-ventilated room, away from second-hand smoke. Remember that pets have a good sense of smell and will be tempted to eat candies, chips, chocolates, and cannabis directly if accessible. If you notice suspicious behavior in your cat or dog and cannabis exposure is a possibility, take your pet to your veterinarian or the nearest emergency veterinary hospital for treatment.

Sources: HealthDay, VCA

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Avery, editor at The Wildest, and her cat, Chicken

Avery Felman

Avery is an editor at The Wildest. She has written for numerous publications, including Refinery29, BuzzFeed, and V Magazine. She lives in Brooklyn, New York with her fiancé and cat, Chicken, and has high hopes that one of them will let her adopt a dog.