By Melissa Giese
As of November 2014, four states had approved the use of marijuana as a recreational drug, and it appears that marijuana is becoming more widely accepted across the nation.
Not surprisingly, the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center has seen an increase in the number of reported cases of pets eating pot: 539 calls about marijuana in 2014.
Dr. Tina Wismer, a veterinary toxicologist who serves as medical director at the ASPCA poison control center in Urbana and is also an adjunct instructor at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, says the increase in calls does not necessarily reflect an increase in marijuana exposures in pets.
“It’s possible that the lessening social stigma of marijuana leads people to be more willing to call when this problem occurs,” says Dr. Wismer. “Our data do not represent actual incidence. Not every pet owner with this problem calls us, and veterinarians who already know how to treat marijuana exposure don’t need to call us each time they see a case.”
Though the number of calls has increased, Dr. Wismer explains that the states with legalized recreational use of the drug do not account for the most calls.
“While these states have moved up on the list, California—which legalized only medical marijuana use—has led the number of calls for many years, with New York coming in second.”
(Illinois tied for fourteenth place, logging 12 calls for marijuana exposure in 2014. The most common causes of toxicoses reported to the poison control center in 2014, regarding Illinois pets, were rodenticides, ant baits, and chocolate.)
Dogs and cats that ingest marijuana can experience a variety of signs. “Most animals become sedate and mentally altered, lose coordination, and dribble urine. However, about 25 percent of animals become agitated instead,” explains Dr. Wismer. In rare instances, pet ingestion of marijuana has led to death.
The effects seen from ingesting marijuana are attributed to its psychoactive component, called Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC.
“As strains of marijuana are developed with a higher THC content, we have had more severe toxicoses reported. There is a published paper that describes the death of two dogs in Colorado,” Dr. Wismer recounts. Luckily death is an uncommon occurrence for pets that have ingested the substance.
Dr. Wismer says pets experience more complications from ingesting marijuana than do people, but not because it is more toxic to them. Rather, animals will generally ingest a larger amount per body weight than people do.
“A pot brownie, for example, can be formulated as a multiple-dose item, and it isn’t uncommon for a dog to eat the entire pan of brownies,” says Dr. Wismer. Because the dog ingested many times more than a human might ingest, it receives a higher dose of THC and can have more significant effects.
Pot brownies not only deliver a dose of THC, but bring the concern of chocolate toxicity as well.
“With chocolate and marijuana we can see stimulatory signs and then depressive signs. Unfortunately, the treatment recommendations for those conditions are directly opposite,” Dr. Wismer says. Cases such as these become more complicated and can also be more dangerous to the animal.
Cats on the other hand may seek out marijuana as they would catnip, opening bags they find and ingesting it.
Standard treatment for marijuana is supportive care.
“With supportive care we are ensuring that the heart rate and blood pressure stay normal. Cases that are severe are treated with intralipids, which are effective at binding THC within the body, inactivating the drug particles,” explains Dr. Wismer. “There are no long-term side effects expected with marijuana toxicity.”
Dr. Wismer’s recommendation is to “treat marijuana just like a prescription medication and keep it away from pets.” Though it may become more widely legalized and readily available, it should be responsibly kept away from pets.
If your pet has ingested a toxic substance, bring the animal to your local veterinarian immediately.