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

Medicinal cannabis is taking the pet wellness world by storm with increasingwidespread recognition of its health benefits, which expect to boost thegrowth of the cannabis extract market to the value of USD $28.5 billion by2027, according to a 2020 market research report¹.

Despite the exciting developments in the cannabis industry, there areveterinary concerns and about the safety and effectiveness of cannabis derivedpet products and the need for more scientific research in pets. A lack ofeducation 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 arehesitant about prescribing this alternative therapy.

Cannabidiol (commonly known as CBD) is a kind of chemical compound naturallyfound in Cannabis plants – one of many cannabinoids in the cannabis plant,including tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary psychoactive component thatcauses 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 asrelieving pain and reducing anxiety and depression². Data on CBD benefits forpets is unfortunately limited; what know so far is that CBD helps pets withosteoarthritis, chronic pain, anxiety and even epilepsyᶟ. In fact, one studyshows that CBD administered to dogs with epilepsy reduced seizure frequency byabout 33%⁴.

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

However, an influx of cannabis-derived products in the global pet care markethas left many people confused about their effectiveness, dosage, safety andwhere to access cannabidiol for animals through legal channels. Research hasrevealed some products have virtually no CBD in them⁵!

What about the flood of advertisements for products containing hemp seed? Manypet owners can find it difficult to discern their differences and benefits fortheir furry friend, sometimes referred hemp oil to CBD oil (or getting hempseed 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 thatis cultivated for its edible seeds, a great source of protein, fibre andessential fatty acids (Omegas 3, 6 and 9). Hemp contains CBD and THC – moreCBD 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 enoughconcentration of cannabidiol to create the therapeutic effects associated withmedicinal CBD products.

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

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

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

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

Earlier this year, it became legal in Australia to purchase CBD oil in lowdoses 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 substanceitself is legal, no product containing it has been approved by the AustralianRegister of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG), which is required for sale.

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

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

“Neither over the counter nor prescription medicinal cannabis for humansshould be given to pets without a veterinary prescription. It’s essential thatanimals 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 prescribedthrough a legal veterinary channel from a legitimate and trustedpharmaceutical product supplier, who knows what’s written on the label isaccurate 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 medicalcondition or every animal, and just like any other medicine may have sideeffects.

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

CBD Vets Australia shares a lot of information on itswebsite, including thedifference between hemp vs CBD for dogs, and a state-by-state overview ofcurrent regulations and requirements for veterinarians to prescribe compoundedCBD to their animal patients.

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

What do pet care practitioners think about CBD?

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

“Interest is very high for CBD oil, but the public are not well-educated as towhat 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 indogs 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 observeimprovements in their pets. Any study on a condition that cannot beobjectively measured is always plagued by spurious improvement due to placebo,and without control groups, any reports of individual successes must betreated with great caution,” he said.

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

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

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

“My 16-year-old dog is on four separate therapies for his arthritis, and thecannabidiol is clearly the least effective of the four. I can indeed see achange 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 comfortlevel,” he said.

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

“The dogs we are treating for arthritis are severely affected, but we arehappy to accept improvement, no matter how small. I am aware of one dog witharthritis who became behaviourally altered on CBD oil and required to bestopped. In the literature it has been seen to affect the liver, but I havenot observed this.”

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

“It doesn’t help that there are so many products being marketed directly topet owners of dubious value, and vets receive promotional material on analmost 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 containthe active ingredient,” he said.

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

“The role of cannabidiol in the future should be of a compound that becomes aconventional part of the therapeutic arsenal used to treat chronic pain. Themore that we can show people that pharmaceutical grade cannabidiol is agenuine treatment option, and the more we can get them to also understand itslimitations, 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 inSydney with an impressive range of education and experience in acupuncture,Traditional Chinese Medicine, Western herbal medicine and integrativeoncology. 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 anaccredited veterinary compounding pharmacist), Dr Goldrick worked with clientswho had already obtained CBD by advising them how to use the product and whatside effects or herb-drug interactions their pet may have.

“We would discuss the importance of a CBD product from a company that hadobtained an independent certificate of standardisation, so we knew what was init, and using a product with very low THCs due to potential for toxicity indogs,” 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 forseizures and for cancer co-care and as an anti-inflammatory.

“CBD oil works well to reduce pain, anxiety and inflammation. But not all dogsand 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 withchronic disease,” she said.

Dr Goldrick is also concerned about pet owners using dubious cannabisderivatives.

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

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

“But managing pain may require a multi-modal approach and natural treatmentsmay not be enough,” she said. “Conventional medications may be needed, butperhaps in lower doses than normal or we may see more effective symptomcontrol when using a combination of natural and conventional medicines. It isalso 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 theirdogs’ healthcare. They need accurate information about the effectiveness ofcannabidiol and appropriate dosage for their pet, as well as where to legallysource it.

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

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

Robyn knew “very little” about CBD until someone at the local park mentionedit 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 somecases,” she said.

The clinic phoned a client who had her dog on CBD to get the details of thesupplier. The client and supplier also helped Robyn with dosage for Sachi andLouis. 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 knowthis could be done?” said Robyn. “I find information on my own and am guidedby the supplier which I can hopefully trust. It would be good if my vet wasmore educated and I’m sure he would feel the same. Definitely more educationand information need to be available to pet owners. I feel if CBD is helpingyour pet and you don’t see any side effect, it’s worth trying, especially inrelation to pain relief.”

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

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

Sally’s response to the CBD oil has been pleasing since starting it over threemonths ago. In conjunction with CBD oil, Sally also takes Atopica, animmunomodulator 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 uncomfortablelife. CBD oil has changed that!” said Mrs Mackey. “While it cannot ‘cure’ hercondition, it has had a massive effect on her levels of inflammation, bothwith her skin and joints. Sally has not had an infection or required anysteroids since she started on the oil.”

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

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

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

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