Originally published in the March 2015 issue of Veterinary Practice News. Not a subscriber? Subscribe here!
Confused about hemp for dogs? You’re not alone. The state of affairs around cannabis for companion animals might be summarized as, “If you’re not confused, you’re not asking enough questions.”
One can purchase a variety of hemp-based products, from ingestible oils to hemp-sourced bedding, online and in stores.
Yet there is abundant uncertainty in the veterinary community about recommending these products for animals with medical problems – with good reason. Chiefly, we have very little research-based data to answer questions about basic issues, including safety and efficacy.
Adding to the uncertainty, laws about hemp and cannabis in general appear to be changing rapidly.
Even against this backdrop, veterinarians may provide inquiring clients with some basic facts. Below are several frequently asked questions (FAQs), along with answers that might be useful to clients.
Q. How does medicinal hemp differ from medical marijuana?
Both hemp and marijuana come from the same plant – Cannabis sativa. Cannabis is the only plant genus known to produce cannabinoids. Hemp and marijuana typically contain two major cannabinoids, delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD).
The main difference lies in the ratio of THC to CBD that the plant contains.[i] By definition, industrial hemp contains high levels of CBD and less than 0.3 percent THC on a dry-matter basis. By comparison, tests of some modern strains of marijuana reveal levels of more than 20 percent THC and much lower levels of CBD.[ii]
Some writers differentiate THC as “psychoactive” and CBD as “non-psychoactive.” CBD confers both psychotropic and neuroprotective effects, but without the typical “high” associated with THC.
Q. Is hemp legal?
One of the most confusing issues surrounding hemp concerns its legal status. Websites that market medicinal hemp products for use in companion animals may claim that hemp is legal across the United States.
A look at summaries of state statutes on the National Conference of State Legislatures’ website suggests that laws regulating hemp differ among individual states. Eight states, including Colorado, have sponsored hemp resolutions and created laws “to promote the growth and marketing of industrial hemp.”[iii]
Some state policies, but not all, have explicitly excluded industrial hemp from the definition of controlled substances under state law.
Even when such products are defined in these ways, the cannabis industry lacks sufficient regulatory oversight to ensure that products labeled as hemp contain low levels of THC.
So, even when questions of legality may be answered, questions remain about consistency and the safety of using hemp products for ailing companion animals.
Q. Is hemp legal for me to prescribe as a veterinarian?
Whether veterinarians can legally prescribe hemp for patients remains to be determined in many states, as the matter of prescribing cannabis has not typically been included in state practice acts.
Q. What are the potential benefits of hemp for dogs?
Results remain anecdotal and have not been validated through peer-reviewed research. This is the very science that the veterinary community needs in order to discern the potential risks and benefits of hemp for dogs.
Some pet owners have reported benefits of hemp for dogs and cats, including treatment of pain, arthritis, seizures, anxiety, inappetance, cognitive dysfunction and more.
Q. What are the potential risks?
As is the case with other botanical products, risks associated with hemp could include intrinsic toxic agents in the plant; species-specific adverse reactions; interactions with medications; mislabeling or plant misidentification; and toxicity from pesticides, contaminants and/or adulterants.
As stated above, there is currently little way to guarantee consistent and low levels of THC in hemp products meant for pets; this raises the possibility of unintended toxicosis.
Q. Have clinical studies been performed on veterinary patients?
Restrictions on cannabis research have, until recently, imposed strict and nearly insurmountable barriers on clinical investigations of the medical applications of hemp and medical marijuana.
Q. What would need to change at the federal level for studies to be conducted?
For hemp products, the Farm Bill of 2013, signed into law in 2014, makes allowances for academic research on industrial hemp, but it appears that states must also have statutes that allow research to occur.
Colorado is, for example, one state that has passed statutes allowing for hemp research under particular conditions and restrictions.
Q. How should a veterinarian approach this matter with clients who have questions?
The American Veterinary Medical Association does not yet have an official position on the issue of medical marijuana for pets. It has urged veterinarians to make treatment decisions using sound clinical judgment and current medical information, in compliance with federal, state and local laws and regulations.[iv]
Meanwhile, a recent article in JAVMA News provides several accounts of animal caregivers finding significant benefits from administration of cannabis agents.
Likewise, outlets that sell hemp products designed for pets offer testimonials about perceived benefits.
However, little research-based information is available to provide analysis and guidance about the use of hemp for animals with medical concerns. Without species-specific research on hemp, evidence that supports claims of safety and effectiveness is extremely limited.
Consumers should employ caution with any cannabis product, should they decide to use it. Lacking sufficient regulatory control and evidence of purity, safety, and effectiveness, outcomes may be unpredictable.
[i] West DP. Hemp and marijuana: myths and realities. North American Industrial Hemp Council, Inc. Accessed at http://naihc.org/hemp_information/content/hemp.mj.html on 1-16-15.
[iii] National Conference of State Legislatures. State industrial hemp statutes. September 15, 2014. Accessed at http://www.ncsl.org/research/agriculture-and-rural-development/state-industrial-hemp-statutes.aspx on 01-16-15.
[iv] AVMA website. A sign of the times: Medical marijuana use and veterinary medicine. July 15, 2013. Accessed at http://atwork.avma.org/2013/07/15/a-sign-of-the-times-medical-marijuana-use-and-veterinary-medicine on 01-20-15.