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Gary Richter Talks Medical Marijuana for Pets

The discussion about the benefits of medical marijuana for people with conditions ranging from cancer, chronic pain, seizures, anxiety, etc., is nothing new. Did you know, however, that our pets benefit in the same way?

Cannabis has the potential to be one of the most promising medicines for humans and animals anyone has seen in a very long time. The key to cannabis as medicine is understanding why and how it works.

Cannabis affects both our bodies and those of our pets because we have something called the endocannabinoid system, or ECS. The ECS is made up of a network of receptors in cells throughout the body and is designed to maintain a state of normality. Just like our bodies naturally regulate our temperature and blood sugar at optimal levels, the ECS works to maintain a wide range of body functions including memory, appetite, energy level, stress response, immune function, pain levels, etc. Our bodies and those of our pets literally evolved this system to help us survive in a stressful world.

One of the fascinating things about the ECS is how it appears to be “designed” to interact with cannabis. Two of the main active compounds found in cannabis, THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, and CBD, or cannabidiol, are very similar to the natural chemicals within the body that affect the ECS. THC and CBD are so similar that they are able to affect how the body functions by binding with ECS receptors. When used as medicine, appropriate doses of THC and CBD can lead to resolution of pain and disease and improved quality of life.

Like every medicine, the key to successful use of medical cannabis is dosing. However, unlike most pharmaceuticals, the relative purity and potency of cannabis products vary widely and are often not listed on product labels. This can lead to ineffective therapy and sometimes to toxicity. Given pets’ relatively small size compared to humans, concerns about negative effects are magnified.

When it comes to using cannabis as medicine in pets, there are several very important points to consider. The most significant factors are: The content or amount of THC and CBD in a product, the ratio of THC to CBD, and how the product was produced.

Everyone understands that dosage matters when it comes to medications. Clearly more is not always better and too much can lead to unwanted side effects and toxicity. While cannabis is relatively safe in the sense that deaths rarely if ever are reported, overdosing a pet on THC can lead to a loss of balance, disorientation, and lack of appetite to the point where medical intervention may be required. This can be scary for both the pet and his or her owners and must be avoided.

In addition to toxicity, cannabis shows what is called a biphasic-dosing curve. This means that there is a point of maximal effect after which the medicine’s efficacy actually decreases. In other words, there tends to be a “sweet spot” with medical cannabis. Too little or too much will not have the desired effect. The key is to find the dose that has the best effect without unwanted side effects.

Equally as important as the amount of medicine given is the ratio of THC to CBD. Each of these compounds has a different effect within the body. While every individual is different, there is a tendency for certain ratios to be more effective for specific conditions. For example, high THC products tend to be more effective as an anti-cancer therapy, certain type of pain, and for appetite stimulation. Products with an even amount of THC and CBD are most commonly used for neurologic problems while high CBD medicines can successfully treat seizures, inflammation, and inflammatory bowel disease.

The strain of the plant and method of production are another vital consideration with regard to cannabis as medicine. Researchers who study medical cannabis describe what is called the “entourage effect.” This term refers to the fact that cannabis contains many active compounds in addition to THC and CBD. The interaction of these compounds within the body is what makes cannabis effective as medicine. When plants such as hemp, which contains little or no THC, are used, efficacy may be diminished.

Production method is the final consideration as cannabis oils can be extracted using safe methods such as CO? or alcohol, or with harsh solvents like butane. Any product used as medicine should always be manufactured in such a way that there is no residual chemicals that may potentially cause illness rather than cure it.

Medical cannabis is like nothing else. It is a prescription-strength medication that can be grown by anyone and is produced more like an artisan craft than a pharmaceutical. The great news is that it is effective and available to those of us in the Bay Area and in locales where medical cannabis is legal. However, like any drug, it must be used correctly in order to have the desired effects and to minimize negative side effects.

Over-the-counter hemp-based, rather than cannabis, products are generally safe for pets and can be effective. For tougher conditions and those pets needing stronger medicine, products made from cannabis are recommended. True cannabis products have the benefit of greater efficacy, although their increased potency necessitates careful dosing. In these cases, consultation with a veterinarian trained and experienced with cannabis medicine is vital to a positive outcome.


Gary Richter, M.S., D.V.M., is certified in veterinary acupuncture and chiropractic. As owner and medical director of Montclair Veterinary Hospital and Holistic Veterinary Care in Oakland, he understands the benefits of both conventional and holistic treatment methods for both preventative and therapeutic care. His professional goal is to provide a center where pets can receive effective holistic and regenerative therapies in conjunction with the highest quality Western medical care. He has been the recipient of more than 20 local and national awards including America’s Favorite Veterinarian by the American Veterinary Medical Foundation in 2015.

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Main article photo by: Paige Filler-CC