Caroline Zambrano

Medicinal cannabis is taking the pet wellness world by storm, promoting a healthier lifestyle for pets

Medicinal cannabis is taking the pet wellness world by storm, promoting a healthier lifestyle for pets. Caroline Zambrano explores the health benefits and concerns in the veterinary industry.

Medicinal cannabis is taking the pet wellness world by storm with increasing widespread recognition of its health benefits, which expect to boost the growth of the cannabis extract market to the value of USD $28.5 billion by 2027, according to a 2020 market research report¹.

Despite the exciting developments in the cannabis industry, there are veterinary concerns and about the safety and effectiveness of cannabis derived pet products and the need for more scientific research in pets. A lack of education for pet owners and veterinarians is also a matter of interest.

Pet Industry News looks at the health benefits of medical cannabis for pets, including pet owner experiences, and finds out why Aussie veterinarians are hesitant about prescribing this alternative therapy.

Cannabidiol (commonly known as CBD) is a kind of chemical compound naturally found in Cannabis plants – one of many cannabinoids in the cannabis plant, including tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary psychoactive component that causes the euphoric or ‘high’ feeling. However, CBD is safe, not intoxicating, non-habit-forming and does not produce the ‘high’ associated with THC.

CBD research has revealed a range of medicinal benefits in humans, such as relieving pain and reducing anxiety and depression². Data on CBD benefits for pets is unfortunately limited; what know so far is that CBD helps pets with osteoarthritis, chronic pain, anxiety and even epilepsy. In fact, one study shows that CBD administered to dogs with epilepsy reduced seizure frequency by about 33%.

In Australia, medicinal cannabis is tightly regulated which means that prescribed cannabis has been tested, is high quality and is safe to use.

However, an influx of cannabis-derived products in the global pet care market has left many people confused about their effectiveness, dosage, safety and where to access cannabidiol for animals through legal channels. Research has revealed some products have virtually no CBD in them!

What about the flood of advertisements for products containing hemp seed? Many pet owners can find it difficult to discern their differences and benefits for their furry friend, sometimes referred hemp oil to CBD oil (or getting hemp seed oil confused with hemp oil).

From a consumer standpoint, pet owners could be wasting a lot of money.

Just to clarify – hemp is a variety of the Cannabis sativa plant species that is cultivated for its edible seeds, a great source of protein, fibre and essential fatty acids (Omegas 3, 6 and 9). Hemp contains CBD and THC – more CBD and less THC than in Cannabis plants.

There are many pet treats, toppers and food products containing hemp seeds, which can offer health and coat benefits, but it does not have a high enough concentration of cannabidiol to create the therapeutic effects associated with medicinal CBD products.

To understand how good quality cannabidiol (CBD) can be legally purchased in Australia, Pet Industry News spoke to Sanjeev Prasad, pharmacist at CBD Vets Australia, the country’s first company to legally prescribe medicinal cannabis under the careful observation of Australian registered veterinarians.

“It is now possible for vets to prescribe compounded CBD for animal health through CBD Vets Australia and for pet parents to access legal CBD for their companion animals,” said Mr Prasad. “We’ve had a significant number of vets taking up and prescribing CBD.”

The company also aims to provide the veterinary industry education and research on medicinal cannabis.

“The illegal black market is making claims about CBD that aren’t real and pet owners get further confused by this. We know the right information and are educating veterinarians about CBD so they can inform pet owners,” said Mr Prasad. “It is important that the vet has knowledge of correct dosages and formulations, because pets (particularly dogs) have an increased sensitivity to THC and are at a high risk of adverse effects, such as static ataxia, where the dogs are unable to move and are standing rocking back and forth. No animal patient has ever died from directly overdosing from medicinal cannabis, as death has mainly been associated with complications such as aspiration pneumonia.”

Earlier this year, it became legal in Australia to purchase CBD oil in low doses for humans over the counter after the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) down-scheduled the substance from a Schedule 4 (prescription medication) to a Schedule 3 (pharmacist-only medicine). However, while the substance itself is legal, no product containing it has been approved by the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG), which is required for sale.

“As with such products aimed at humans, CBD-based products sold online are illegal in Australia, and you cannot guarantee what cannabinoids your online or black market product contains and in what dosages,” said Mr Prasad.

Excipients and additives used in human products can cause vomiting and diarrhea in animals as their stomach treats certain ingredients differently. THC may also be found in human medicinal cannabis formulations, which can put pet lives at risk.

“Neither over the counter nor prescription medicinal cannabis for humans should be given to pets without a veterinary prescription. It’s essential that animals receive the most appropriate dose and formulation for their size, weight and condition, to make sure it’s safe,” he said.

“Many CBD oil products are circulating online and unless it is prescribed through a legal veterinary channel from a legitimate and trusted pharmaceutical product supplier, who knows what’s written on the label is accurate and may contain substances (eg pesticides, heavy metals), contaminants or additives that could be poisonous to your pet?”

It’s also important to note that CBD oil isn’t right for every medical condition or every animal, and just like any other medicine may have side effects.

“Medicinal cannabis is an exciting new area in veterinary treatment for the health management and wellbeing of our pets and warrants further exploration via clinical research and trials,” said Mr Prasad.

CBD Vets Australia shares a lot of information on its website, including the difference between hemp vs CBD for dogs, and a state-by-state overview of current regulations and requirements for veterinarians to prescribe compounded CBD to their animal patients.

If you are interested in prescribing CBD to your pet or are a vet with patients who may benefit, contact CBD Vets Australia.

What do pet care practitioners think about CBD?

Veterinarian Dr Andrew Spanner from Walkerville Vet Hospital in South Australia has been prescribing CBD to his furry patients for over six months with some success in improvements, but also has concerns.

“Interest is very high for CBD oil, but the public are not well-educated as to what this means and what the actives are or where they are found,” he said.

Firstly, there is little science to support the use of CBD for anything in dogs except pain, and almost nothing in any other species, he said.

“It is also essential to highlight the large confounding influence that the ‘caregiver placebo effect’ has on the ability of owners to observe improvements in their pets. Any study on a condition that cannot be objectively measured is always plagued by spurious improvement due to placebo, and without control groups, any reports of individual successes must be treated with great caution,” he said.

“This problem is particularly prevalent in areas like CBD and cannabis derivatives, where the strong pre-existing belief in the products is likely to affect a user’s ability to be impartial. Poor judgement matters when ineffective treatments are used instead of other more effective and evidence-based options. This is particularly true for areas like seizure management or pain control.

“Even in the case of cannabidiol treatment of pain in dogs, where there is strong evidence of improvement over placebo, the actual magnitude of the change is very small. Therefore, a more effective treatment should always be tried first.”

Dr Spanner believes some pet owners wishing to use cannabis derivatives are avoiding using the more conventional treatments, which would likely cause harm to their pets due to inadequate control of their pain. His personal experience mirrors this.

“My 16-year-old dog is on four separate therapies for his arthritis, and the cannabidiol is clearly the least effective of the four. I can indeed see a change in his mobility on days when I do not give it, but missing his anti-inflammatory tablet causes a much more significant reduction in his comfort level,” he said.

Experience with Dr Spanner’s other patients echoes this observation of real but only marginal improvement.

“The dogs we are treating for arthritis are severely affected, but we are happy to accept improvement, no matter how small. I am aware of one dog with arthritis who became behaviourally altered on CBD oil and required to be stopped. In the literature it has been seen to affect the liver, but I have not observed this.”

Dr Spanner said he expects most vets to be rightly suspicious of the use of cannabinoids.

“It doesn’t help that there are so many products being marketed directly to pet owners of dubious value, and vets receive promotional material on an almost weekly basis for new products claiming to contain cannabis derivatives. These are all likely to have no effect at all as by law they cannot contain the active ingredient,” he said.

Dr Spanner’s main concerns are the unregulated and financially motivated marketing of ineffective products directly to pet owners.

“The role of cannabidiol in the future should be of a compound that becomes a conventional part of the therapeutic arsenal used to treat chronic pain. The more that we can show people that pharmaceutical grade cannabidiol is a genuine treatment option, and the more we can get them to also understand its limitations, the better off our dogs will be,” he said.

CBD just another holistic tool

Dr Karen Goldrick is an integrative veterinarian from All Natural Vet Care in Sydney with an impressive range of education and experience in acupuncture, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Western herbal medicine and integrative oncology. She sees CBD as “just another tool in our holistic tool chest”.

Prior to being able to prescribe CBD oil (via a prescription sent to an accredited veterinary compounding pharmacist), Dr Goldrick worked with clients who had already obtained CBD by advising them how to use the product and what side effects or herb-drug interactions their pet may have.

“We would discuss the importance of a CBD product from a company that had obtained an independent certificate of standardisation, so we knew what was in it, and using a product with very low THCs due to potential for toxicity in dogs,” she said.

Dr Goldrick prescribes CBD oil on only dogs and cats, mainly for pain relief, reducing anxiety, chronic skin or gut disorders, some supporting care for seizures and for cancer co-care and as an anti-inflammatory.

“CBD oil works well to reduce pain, anxiety and inflammation. But not all dogs and cats, in my experience, tolerate it or it may not seem to have any effect. It can also be expensive. There are always other options, eg other herbs, supplements or physical therapies to reduce pain, inflammation and help with chronic disease,” she said.

Dr Goldrick is also concerned about pet owners using dubious cannabis derivatives.

“They obtain a bottle that has no label and no idea what is in it. Often it is just hemp oil, which is a nice source of essential fatty acids but not going to have the pain relief they may expect,” she said.  “We discuss the importance of using a company that has a certificate or of standardisation, so we can advise on dosage. Now that we can prescribe CBD oil, we prefer to prescribe the compounded form.”

Dr Goldrick looks to any natural treatments – be they CBD oil, other herbs, physical therapies or nutritional therapies – as effective and generally having fewer side effects than conventional medications.

“But managing pain may require a multi-modal approach and natural treatments may not be enough,” she said. “Conventional medications may be needed, but perhaps in lower doses than normal or we may see more effective symptom control when using a combination of natural and conventional medicines. It is also important to be aware of any potential herb-drug interactions.”

Dr Goldrick said vets and pet owners need more education in CBD treatment, adding “There’s an appetite for CBD research right now!”

What do pet owners think about CBD?

Pet owners are increasingly interested in incorporating CBD oil into their dogs’ healthcare. They need accurate information about the effectiveness of cannabidiol and appropriate dosage for their pet, as well as where to legally source it.

In Sydney, Robyn (surname withheld for privacy reasons) started giving CBD oil to her elderly rescue dogs Sachi and Louis a couple months ago.  Both over 16 years of age, Sachi suffers from problems with his back legs and Louis has cancer on his toe, which causes pain. Surgery to remove the toe wasn’t an option and medications prescribed by her vet did not work.

“Sachi did not show improvement, but Louis showed big improvement with less pain, not limping and happier in himself,” she said.

Robyn knew “very little” about CBD until someone at the local park mentioned it had helped their dog. Her vet admitted knowing little about cannabidiol, too.

“My vet hasn’t treated dogs with CBD but had heard it’s been effective in some cases,” she said.

The clinic phoned a client who had her dog on CBD to get the details of the supplier. The client and supplier also helped Robyn with dosage for Sachi and Louis. Robyn texts the lady and she sends a bottle of CBD by post.

“There’s no label on the bottle. No script given by the vet. I didn’t know this could be done?” said Robyn. “I find information on my own and am guided by the supplier which I can hopefully trust. It would be good if my vet was more educated and I’m sure he would feel the same. Definitely more education and information need to be available to pet owners. I feel if CBD is helping your pet and you don’t see any side effect, it’s worth trying, especially in relation to pain relief.”

From the Sunshine Coast, QLD, Jo Mackey explained how her dog Sally suffers from severe skin allergies and lesions that can be so inflamed that antibiotics and steroids are required to ease infection, inflammation and discomfort. The array of different medications Sally was on only provided short term relief.

“I read a lot about anti-inflammatory benefits of CBD oil. I also did a lot of online research and spoke to people who used CBD oil,” she said. “Our vet was very open to my request to try CBD oil. In fact, she had just attended a conference on the use of CBD oil in veterinary practice.”

Sally’s response to the CBD oil has been pleasing since starting it over three months ago. In conjunction with CBD oil, Sally also takes Atopica, an immunomodulator that aids in the treatment of atopic dermatitis.

“Throughout the last three years, Sally has been on an array of medications, has had blood tests and biopsies and has generally had a pretty uncomfortable life. CBD oil has changed that!” said Mrs Mackey. “While it cannot ‘cure’ her condition, it has had a massive effect on her levels of inflammation, both with her skin and joints. Sally has not had an infection or required any steroids since she started on the oil.”

Mrs Mackey believes it should be covered by pet insurance as it is a valid treatment for many conditions and should be treated as such.

“CBD oil has been a godsend for Sally and for us! It was very distressing to see her in discomfort and pain. Her quality of life has improved so much, and she is a much happier girl. There have been no side effects unlike being on steroids which would make her ravenously hungry and aggressive towards our older dog,” she said.

Mrs Mackey said she would like to see vets being able to actively advocate CBD oil as an effective treatment for a range of issues.