Noticed a few more furry friends in your Instagram feed lately? It’s not just you — 23 million American households acquired a cat or a dog during the pandemic. That’s one in five homes across the country. And that explosion of pets comes with lots of ancillary goods and services: Pet food, treats, outfits, behavioral training, and more all saw huge growth this past year to serve the growing pet population. Another area that’s seen marked growth? Cannabinoids for pets.
Interest in and use of cannabinoids for pets has soared in the past couple of years, and it’s increasing. Pet owners, desiring more “natural” remedies, are turning to cannabinoids to address a host of ailments affecting their companion animals. I’d like to share a veterinarian’s perspective on these products.
Animal endocannabinoid systems
First up: How do cannabinoids like CBD work in pets? It all starts in the endocannabinoid system, which is found in nearly all mammals — humans, dogs, and cats alike.
If you’re not already familiar, “endo” refers to “endogenous,” which means originating from within the body. Our bodies, and our pets’ bodies, make and interact with naturally occurring endocannabinoids through the complex arrangement of nerves, receptors, and enzymes known as the endocannabinoid system (ECS). Receptors for this system (CB1 and CB2) are found all over the body, especially throughout the central nervous system, and the ECS plays a role in everything from mood to immune function to inflammation to sleep.
It’s not hard to connect the dots on how an animal could benefit from cannabinoid therapies, particularly with anxiety-related behavior and inflammatory conditions. Plant-based phytocannabinoids like CBD can be purchased in a wide variety of delivery methods for pets, such as tinctures, salves, and treats.
Why pet owners are turning to cannabinoids
Cannabinoids are shown in both pre-clinical and clinical studies to aid in arthritis-related pain management, seizure control, and anxiety (among others) in pets.
Generally, when describing conditions most likely to benefit from treatment with cannabinoids, I use the PAINS acronym: Pain, Anxiety, Inflammation, Nausea or appetite loss, and Seizures.
Cannabinoids can be the difference between having to make an extremely difficult choice like euthanasia or helping a pet achieve more positive quality of life.
A few years ago, I met the owners of a Bichon Frise-Maltese mix that suffered from continued daily seizures despite anti-seizure medication. The owners were beside themselves they couldn’t bear to see their beloved pet continue to suffer. As a final option before euthanasia, they decided to try cannabinoids. Lo and behold, the seizures stopped, the pet’s quality of life improved dramatically, and the owners were spared from the difficult decision to euthanize.
Emerging research supports the anecdotal evidence. CBD has been demonstrated in clinical trials to help dogs with osteoarthritis pain increase their mobility, reduce pain, and improve overall quality of life.
On the anxiety side, some of the increased interest in cannabinoids for pets is tied directly to the pandemic. With work, school and social schedules returning to a new version of “normal,” many pets are struggling to transition from 100-percent one-on-one time to new schedules where they are alone for a portion of the day or having new people like dog walkers in their lives. Some anxiety-related behavioral issues may be coming to the surface, so more and more pet owners are searching for remedies.
Safety and efficacy of pet cannabinoids
A question I am asked all the time is whether or not cannabinoids are as safe as they are effective in addressing pet health concerns. Well, I’ll say no one treatment is 100-percent effective 100 percent of the time. Just look at commonly prescribed NSAIDs and antibiotics for pets, which can lead to organ damage and the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, respectively. Having said that, CBD has been shown to have a wide range of safety and a remarkable track record in real-world use.
Cannabis and cannabinoids have been shown to be effective without as many of the potential drawbacks as other pharmaceuticals, but because of cannabis’s Schedule I status at the federal level, there simply hasn’t been enough opportunity to study it until very recently.
The market, however, has moved on and embraced cannabinoids for both human and pet use in historic numbers. The science of cannabinoids is now lagging behind the culture.
Marketing pet cannabinoids
Not unlike the vast number of CBD wellness products found in dispensaries and mainstream retailers, the options and pet cannabinoid products available can be overwhelming for consumers. And until laws change to allow more frank discussions between veterinarians and their clients about cannabinoid therapies, the onus is on consumers to do their own product research.
The current recommendations for pets and owners are the same: Ensure the product has been tested by an independent, third-party lab and comes with a transparent, detailed certificate of analysis (COA) regarding cannabinoid content and screening for pesticides and contaminants. Read reviews and ask questions. Ask about the brand’s sourcing, how they formulate and process the product, and how much veterinary expertise they have on board.
Good, transparent pet cannabinoid businesses are there because they care about pets. Finding the right cannabinoid solution can enhance quality of life for both people and their animal companions. I truly believe the next phase of cannabis wellness will make a profound impact on health, happiness, and harmony in consumer households.
Tim Shu, DVM, is the founder and chief executive officer at California-based VETCBD and VETCBD Hemp. He is a licensed veterinarian and pet cannabis expert. Since VETCBD’s founding in 2015, Shu has grown the company to be the No. 1 veterinarian-formulated pet cannabis brand in California.
Shu practiced as a licensed veterinarian in general, emergency, and critical care medicine before launching VETCBD.