Explained

Is cannabis safe for dogs? Pet marijuana poisoning is rising exponentially as more edibles are available

John Fedele via Getty Images

If you have a furry friend at home, you probably know that just about anything left on the floor, the coffee table, or in the garbage can pique your pet’s interest as a potential treat.

But what happens when they start wobbling around, showing clear signs of disorientation? Or, you look into Fido’s eyes and realize they look glassy, rather than playful? That’s what happened to Jen Gunter, a resident of Marin County, Calif. Her energetic three-year-old Labrador retriever, Hazel, wasn’t acting like herself.

“She was on the couch. Her head was hanging over and she couldn’t lift herself up,” Gunter told NBC News. She then retrieved a tennis ball – Hazel’s favorite toy – and was shocked when her pup ignored it completely.

Then, her dog Hazel lost control of her bladder.

“I thought, ‘Oh my God, my dog is dying from poison or she had a stroke,’” Gunter said. She rushed Hazel to an emergency veterinary clinic.

The staff wasn’t so surprised.

It was marijuana poisoning, they told Gunter, and it happens all the time.

A urine toxicology test confirmed Hazel had THC in her system. Gunter realized the dog had probably sniffed out an edible or joint and accidentally ate it when she was on a run earlier that day.

My dog Hazel was poisoned with marijuana yesterday.We finished our run at 3:30 pm. I left her at home to go shopping….

Posted by Dr. Jen Gunter on Thursday, July 5, 2018

This wasn’t an isolated case of irresponsible pet care. Marijuana intoxication in animals is on the rise, and many people don’t even realize it’s happening until the symptoms arise. Nationwide Insurance, the largest provider of medical benefits for pets, says that last year alone, of the nearly one-million dollars in plant-poisoning pet insurance claims, many were attributed to marijuana exposure.

WAIT, AREN’T THERE CBD PRODUCTS JUST FOR PETS? We found out why you should ask a vet about them first

Likewise, the ASPCA’s Animal Poison Control Center reported a 765 percent increase in calls related to marijuana exposure in pets this year alone. It makes sense. The rise in accessibility due to recent recreational and medical legalization leads to an increase in accidental exposure in pets.

APCC Medical Director Dr. Tina Wismer added that the widespread use of edibles makes marijuana “more enticing to dogs,” since they smell like regular, highly coveted human food. Conversely, cats “are more attracted by marijuana in its bud form” – think catnip. There are also instances of dogs getting into marijuana they find on the street while on a walk, much to the puzzlement of pet owners who were non-users.

“They can die from the overdose. People get high; dogs get poisoned.”

And it doesn’t take much for pets to get high–rather, for them to experience symptoms of poisoning.

“Dogs have so many more cannabinoid receptors in their brain and throughout their body,” University of Alberta animal science instructor Connie Varnhagen told Science X. That sensitive network can become overwhelmed by THC, the psychoactive cannabinoid in marijuana.

DIFFERENT STRAINS, SAME EFFECTS: A DNA expert reveals the science

“They can die from the overdose. People get high; dogs get poisoned,” she added.

Thankfully, if ingestion does occur, it usually doesn’t result in death if symptoms are recognized quickly enough. Varnhagen said that when dogs are admitted to an animal hospital with THC toxicity, it usually takes them 12-24 hours to “sleep it off” and achieve full recovery.

It’s highly dependent on the dose and the size of the dog — ingestion can be worse for a ten-pound terrier as opposed to a sixty-pound German Shepherd.

A common treatment is “intravenous lipid infusion therapy,” Brittany Knepper, a nurse at the Eastham Veterinary Hospital in Massachusetts, told the Columbus Dispatch. This process allows a liquid fat to run through a dog’s veins. Because marijuana will cling to fat cells, this form of therapy helps the toxins pass through the dog faster by eliminating them in urine.

Ideally, you should store your edibles or flower in a place that’s out of reach from pets. If your pet does accidentally poison themselves, the most important thing is to take them to the vet as soon as you notice the symptoms, and be honest – even if marijuana isn’t legal in your state.

“It’s much easier to treat poisoning if your vet knows what caused it,” said Varnhagen. “Your vet is not going to call the police on you.”

Have comments on this story or questions about cannabis? Send inquiries and tips to amanda.bartlett@sfchronicle.com