Paws Off: Understanding Cannabis Toxicity in Dogs and Cats

Humans are by and large social creatures. They enjoy sharing experiences with each other, whether it’s a book, a walk out in nature, or simply visiting each other’s home to enjoy a glass of wine. For many pet owners, sharing their favorite activities and foods with their furry family members is a way to socialize with and include them.

A few pieces of popcorn, a carrot, or a couple blueberries may be somewhat safe for your dog to enjoy. (Always check with your vet first, of course, and here is a handy guide for you to reference.) However, most foods and drinks humans consume are dangerous and even toxic to their pets.

Marijuana Toxicosis on the Rise in Pets

Some pet owners (often unintentionally) forget that their dog or cat evolved with a different physiology than their human counterparts. The dairy and spices in a piece of pizza can give dogs an upset stomach, chocolate can cause vomiting, and regardless of what you’ve seen in movies – even the smallest amount of an alcoholic beverage (beer, for example) is very toxic to our furry friends.

With tasty, high-quality, high-potency edibles on the rise, there is a new threat to the health of our cats and dogs — THC and its deltas. The Animal Poison Control Center (APPC) reported a 795% increase in phone calls from owners who reported that their pets consumed some form of marijuana in 2019.

Secure Edibles, Cannabis Plants, and Buds

The newest of terrible ideas is sharing an edible with a pet. What may start as a fun or mischievous notion often ends in disaster. Sometimes, this is because pet owners project how the therapeutic effects of cannabis make them feel onto their pets and believe it will have the same effect — but this is not the case.

More commonly, an opportunistic dog will help themselves to an unattended edible that smells like a tasty dessert. Dogs tend to be more likely to procure “people food” with or without permission. And to our canine friends, edibles certainly count as culinary contraband. The issue is further exacerbated in that many edibles contain ingredients toxic to dogs, such as chocolate. Not surprisingly, over 90% of the calls made to the Animal Poison Control Center are from dog owners concerned that their pet is suffering from marijuana toxicity.

keep marijuana away from pets
Patients and adult-use cannabis consumers should keep their stash away from kids and pets alike. Ensure edibles are always out of the reach of pets and any home-grown cannabis plants and flower are secured.

And it’s not just edibles that pose an issue. Pet owners know how curious their furry family members can be. In states where cannabis has been legalized, there is often a provision allowing qualified users the option to grow a limited number of plants. Unfortunately, because dogs and cats enjoy eating grass and other plants, they may decide to nibble on an unattended cannabis plant.

Whether your pet steals an edible or snacks on a plant, both situations can cause a great deal of harm to your pet.

Symptoms of THC Intoxication in Pets

Like humans, the effects of cannabis intoxication vary from animal to animal. However, there are many common symptoms to keep an eye out for if you suspect your pet was exposed. These issues can be manifested in the following forms:

  • Neurological: wobbliness, disorientation, hyperactivity, lethargy, tremors, seizures
  • Behavioral: vocalization, anxiety, fearfulness, aggression
  • Physiological: dilated pupils, hypersalivation, urinary incontinence, vomiting, diarrhea, slowed heart rate, hypothermia
  • Severe cases: coma, death (although very rare)

The severity of symptoms depends on factors such as the amount of THC ingested, the size of the animal, and individual sensitivity. Your physiology and that of your pet are naturally different. Cannabis consumers should always be hypervigilant when it comes to the security and safety of the products they purchase or are prescribed.

Why Is Cannabis So Dangerous to Dogs?

Cannabis toxicity in pets is primarily attributed to THC, which interacts with the endocannabinoid system of all animals, disrupting normal physiological processes. THC binds to cannabinoid receptors, particularly the CB1 receptors found in the central nervous system, leading to an array of neurologic and gastrointestinal effects.

Issue #1 – Dogs Have More CB1 Receptors

Dogs, in particular, possess a much higher density of CB1 receptors in their brains compared to humans. This makes them far more susceptible to THC toxicity and can quickly result in negative side effects. After ingesting THC (especially in higher concentrations, dogs can experience what is commonly referred to as a “bad trip.” This includes heightened anxiety, nausea, dizziness, and agitation.

If your pet has experienced THC by accident and these symptoms didn’t occur, don’t consider your pet an exception. Instead, consider yourself lucky and try to avoid their exposure to THC in the future. When your dog or cat is suffering from cannabis toxicity, it can become a serious issue that requires medical attention. Keeping cannabis in all forms secured is the best way to sidestep the issue altogether.

Issue #2 – Dog’s Bodies Recycle Cannabinoids.

The second reason dogs often suffer severe side effects from marijuana poisoning is because their bodies recycle THC. An article written by Shishira Sreenivas explains,

When your dog is exposed to THC, the gut absorbs it and stores it in bile – a fluid made by the liver. When your pup eats its next meal, the THC-loaded bile is secreted into the intestines. This re-exposes them. This is why your dog’s symptoms are much worse.”

Shishira Sreenivas, “THC (Marijuana) Poisoning in Dogs,” https://www.webmd.com/pets/dogs/thc-poisoning-dogs, April 21, 2022, Retrieved on December 4th, 2023.

Between dogs having significantly more CB1 receptors in their brain and a body that recycles THC, it makes it much harder for dogs to “sleep off” a bad trip. For these reasons, if your pet has consumed cannabis, it’s highly recommended to call your vet. Tell them what happened, how much THC was consumed, and discuss whether you should bring your pet into the facility to receive medical attention.

Prevention as a Solution

The key to preventing cannabis toxicity in dogs and cats involves pet owners using cannabis responsibly. Be sure to keep cannabis products out of the reach of pets and promptly clean up any edibles (including crumbs), loose flower, or discarded products.

Cannabis toxicity in pets is a growing concern as the availability of cannabis products increases alongside state-by-state legalization. Pet owners must be aware of the potential risks associated with cannabis exposure and take preventive measures to ensure the safety of their companions. Additionally, veterinarians will be called upon to play a crucial role in diagnosing and treating cannabis toxicity in pets, promoting awareness, and contributing to the ongoing research surrounding this emerging health issue.

If you suspect your pet has consumed any form of cannabis, reach out to your vet immediately, or call the Animal Poison Control Center hotline at 888-426-4435. Be honest about how you suspect your pet could have been exposed to the plant’s compounds, be it flower, concentrate, or edible.

veterinary poison hotline
If you suspect that your pet has consumed a toxic or poisonous substance (such as marijuana), call your vet immediately. If you need emergency assistance or resources, the 24-hour emergency veterinary poison hotline is available at 888-426-4435.

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