Pot for Pets?

Patty Khuly
Could marijuana benefit your pet?Could marijuana aid your senior
or ailing pet?

Two years ago, a small company out of Washington state received a patent on a patch designed to deliver therapeutic amounts of medication into the bloodstream. It wasn’t a big deal and might well have gone unnoticed except for the fact that the medication in question was marijuana and the company planned to market its patch for use in pets.

Yes, a pot delivery system designed specifically for pets. Well … not just for pets, but the veterinary angle doubtless helped spread the word of the company’s novel technology. In so doing, it also raised marijuana’s profile as a drug with therapeutic benefits that might extend to pets as well.

But does it really work? Is it safe?

According to the company’s press release, its goal is to bring the patch to humans and animals in need of “… a holistic, therapeutic adjunctive for management of chronic pain due to arthritis, the side effects of chemotherapy, multiple sclerosis and other chronic conditions.”

Which makes sense … for people.

As it stands, marijuana’s risks and benefits are fairly well understood in the human arena. In people, we know it helps control nausea, improve appetite, and even reduce pain. We also know it gets low marks when it comes to cognitive function –– among other long-term risks.

When it comes to pets, though, marijuana is mostly considered one big black box labeled “who knows?”

Indeed, as far as Dr. Google or I can tell, controlled research on the safety and efficacy of medical marijuana in pets has never been undertaken. One 2009 study published in the British Journal of Pharmacology did, however, highlight the ability of cannabinoid compounds to relax the lower esophageal sphincter in ten Labrador Retrievers –– a finding that led to additional research into its ability to reduce esophageal reflux in humans.

Esophageal reflux may not be a huge issue in dogs, but medical marijuana for pets is a hot topic these days, nonetheless. And why not? If there’s a legitimate therapeutic use for any given drug for one mammal, it stands to reason that many others may find it beneficial, too.

Problem is, it’s tough enough to tease out the differences between medicinal vs. recreational use when it comes to humans. This has been a thorny spike of contention for as long as pot has been on our national radar — some 80-odd years now, at least.

So too are the same issues likely to plague pot in veterinary practice. This, despite the fact that marijuana seems likely to help pets weather the effects of nausea, vomiting, and chronic pain. That’s because cannabis naysayers still outweigh its champions. Some cite the higher sensitivity of marijuana in dogs (a dose issue) but most claim the risk for abuse is too high in humans who might use their pets as pretext for their own drug abuse.

But then there’s this to consider: If a drug has a medical purpose, it should be fully exploited for that use. Risk of abuse –– at least to marijuana’s degree –– is insufficient justification for barring access to a therapeutic option of such high potential (pardon the pun).

After all, legal drugs kill hundreds of people daily in this country — typically when they’re abused. Yet few clamor for the elimination of these otherwise life-saving meds –– usually drugs designed to alleviate pain and anxiety. I mean, if the drug works, why do we need to be hampered by a skewed cultural sensibility that leads us to believe drugs must come foil-topped off an assembly line to qualify as safe and effective?

Because if we’re honest, it’s clear that marijuana’s long history of recreational use, outright abuse, and subsequent cultural intolerance is the only thing that keeps us from accepting its ability to heal. This becomes especially obvious when we consider that pot’s clinical successes have been consistently ratified via several decades worth of legitimate research.

I got to thinking about this recently after reading about one California veterinarian’s crusade to make marijuana more acceptable in veterinary circles. Though his quirky campaign style seems unlikely to alter the status quo significantly, his message resonates in wider circles –– more so now that even recreational use of marijuana is making legal inroads in the US.

So when a friend confessed she’d been having a hard time getting her vet to prescribe medicinal marijuana for one of her pets (she lives in a state in which this is legal), I had more than a little sympathy. His downward spiral of muscle loss, anemia and weakness in the course of chronic renal failure made him a good candidate. But her veterinarian wouldn’t relent.

As it turns out, plenty of vets who practice in states where medicinal marijuana is legal have major reservations about the possibility that owners will abuse pet meds. And given the black box discussed above, I can’t really blame veterinarians for having liability-related reservations. After all, we don’t yet have conclusive proof of marijuana’s degree of safety and efficacy.

And, yet, I can’t get behind the decision to refrain from prescribing any legal drug that might well improve my patient’s quality of life. Not when our pharmacy shelves already contain well-used drugs whose safety and efficacy are similarly unproven.

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