Cannabis for Dogs?

Why I Wrote a Book about Cannabis for Dogs

Originally appearing in the June 2017 Issue of ShowSight Magazine as part of the column "Thoughts I Had On The Way Home From The Dog Show".


Most of you know me only by this column. A few more know me by my salukis, and a few more know me by my books. Very few know me by my training or profession. My training is in psychology—but not the touchy-feely "tell me about your childhood" type that we "scientists" snubbed.  My training is in the synapse, neurotransmitter, genetic  and other biological bases of behavior.

At some point I realized the part of research I liked best was writing, whether it was the grant proposals or the resulting articles. And on the side I enjoyed translating scientific findings about dogs to readers in various dog magazines. Somehow this morphed into writing dog books and articles full-time, and I've since published 35 books, hundreds of magazine articles and maybe thousands of website articles. I try to be careful what I write about and who I write for. 

So when I found myself writing disease profiles for a site that eschewed the virtues of cannabinoids for all sorts of pet health woes I was not happy. As a science writer I have an obligation to examine topics I write about critically. And here they were claiming they had something that could soothe pain, calm nerves, fight infections, quell nausea, and speed bone healing. What next, cure cancer? Well, sort of.  Remember, I'm a synapse and chemoreceptor sort rather than an aura and crystal healing sort. I'm highly skeptical of alternative medicines—especially when they make widespread claims. 

Of course, I haven't been living in a cave. I knew about the legalization of medical marijuana, and about its success with certain problems, most notably glaucoma and some cases of epilepsy. But I knew I'd have to know more than that before I could continue. 

I found instance after instance of cannabis being use to treat disorder after disorder through history, going back as far as 2900 BC in China. But telling me something contains both "yin and yang" is not particularly convincing to the scientist in me. The ancient Egyptians used  it, and the Romans as well. But the Romans also cut their dogs' tails off to prevent rabies. (This does not work, by the way).  Indian medicine made use of cannabis 1000 years ago to quicken the mind, give strength and agility, achieve spiritual freedom and higher consciousness, lower fevers, stimulate appetite, improve digestion and relieve headaches.  My personal high school  experiments with cannabis would tend to disagree with these results, especially the part where it "quickened the mind," although "stimulate appetite" I could attest to. 

But then the claims get even more grandiose: leprosy, earaches, edema, gout, joint cramps, pain, migraines, vomiting, hemorrhage, diarrhea, anorexia, depression, arthritis, menstrual cramps, headaches, insomnia, neuralgia, convulsions, opium addiction—all claimed to be treatable with cannabis. It was beginning to sound like "Dr. Feelgood's Magic Elixir" for whatever ails you. 

Then I found out that many of the cannabis products didn't even contain THC! Every kid in junior high school kid knows THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) is the chemical in marijuana that gets you high. These people would put a snake oil medicine man to shame with their audacity! Snake oil minus the snake oil?

I determined I had stumbled upon the perfect fodder for an expose. It would almost be too easy. I would be famous. Visions of television appearances danced through my head.  So I started investigating more, collecting notes, compiling evidence—and all my expose plans were thwarted. Because little by little, I realized it wasn't the subject matter that was lacking—it was my education in it. 

It turns out there is a robust research body of cannabinoid science, one that explains how it works, why it works on so many seemingly unrelated disorders, and what the other cannabinoids besides THC can do. No, I'm still not convinced enough that I'd throw out my prescriptions, but I am convinced enough that I'd add cannabinoids to my treatment arsenal when the situation calls for it. This is a big step for me; I am not a person with a cabinet full of herbal supplements, and don't look for a single homeopathic tincture in my belongings. I'm even skeptical of acupuncture and chiropractic medicine, although I've given each a try. That was $50 down the drain. Each time. They didn't work. On me or my dogs. 

My evidence consisted of two main areas: 1) How do cannabinoids work? and 2) What evidence is there that they can help? Instead of publishing my findings in the great CBD expose, I ended up publishing them in a book, Cannabis and CBD Science for Dogs ( Here's the Cliff Notes version: 

Let's start with understanding how the nervous system, or at least part of it, works. The cells in your brain and nervous system communicate with each other by means of both electric impulses and various types of chemicals called neurotransmitters. The electric impulses move down each nerve cell. When they get to the ending of a nerve cell, they induce the release of specific chemicals that then travel across a tiny gap and fit into a receptor site on the beginning of the next nerve cell. In this way a nerve impulse travels throughout the body. 

There are many types of these chemicals, called neurotransmitters. But the receptor sites on particular nerve cells only recognize particular kinds of neurotransmitters. Think of it as a lock and key, or puzzle piece,  system: a neurotransmitter must have a certain shape to fit into a matching site or it just won't work.  But some imposter chemicals are close enough to also fit into the same sites; we use these drugs to fool the nervous system into stimulating more receptor sites. Or the chemicals may be close enough in shape to stick in the receptor site but not exact enough to stimulate the next nerve cell to fire, effectively blocking the real neurotransmitters. Thus we can use to these drugs to either increase or reduce certain nerve signals in the body. This is the concept behind many pain killers, stimulants, sleeping pills and mood altering drugs.  

Once a nerve cell releases a neurotransmitter, how does it know when to stop? It turns out that a second type of neurotransmitter is released from the receiving nerve cell. It travels back across the gap ("upstream") and fits into receptor cells on the first nerve cell that effectively signal it to quit releasing the initial neurotransmitter.  Just as with the other neurotransmitters, similarly shaped chemicals can fit or partially fit into the receptor sites, mimicking or blocking these inhibitory neurotransmitters' effects. The chemicals that fit into these sites are the cannabinoids. 

Just as the body produces its own (endogenous) neurotransmitters, it also produces its own cannabinoids (called endogenous cannabinoids or endocannibinoids). Just a fancy way of saying it makes them itself.  Exogenous cannabinoids are the ones made outside the body—by plants—that mimic the body's own cannabinoids and fit into the cannabinoid receptors.  

The endocannabinoid system consists of a group of specialized receptors in the brain and peripheral nervous system of all animals, from earthworms to humans—and dogs. It works like a master regulator, telling other neurotransmitters when to speed up or calm down, directing some to fight problems and others to restore the body to its natural state. For example, they tell the immune system when to fight an infection and when to stop when it's destroyed. Think of it as a master thermostat, regulating a variety of physiological processes including appetite, pain-sensation, nausea, mood, memory, and inflammation.

Endocannabinoid receptors are influenced by cannabinoids found in hemp and marijuana. Cannabis has been used for medicinal purposes in people and animals for centuries. It was widely marketed by major pharmaceuticals until the 1937 Marihuana Act. 

In the 1960s the cannabinoid THC was discovered and got all the credit—and it is the one responsible for the "high" you get from marijuana. But it's far from the only cannabinoid with medicinal properties. More recently another cannabinoid, called cannabidiol (CBD), is getting credit for many if not most of the medicinal benefits. CBD doesn't get you high, and it comes from hemp, not marijuana.

More than 13,000 journal articles about cannabinoids and more than 1500 of just CBD have been published to date. That's way too many to cover here, although the book does a better job! Laboratory studies show CBD exerts an anti-anxiety effect on humans and rats similar to what anti-anxiety medications produce. Studies in rats show CBD decreases memory loss with aging and actually regenerates neurons in the memory-part of the brain. Other studies show CBD helps reduces seizures, alleviate arthritis, inflammation and pain; decreases nausea and vomiting, promotes bone growth and healing, discourages cancer spread and growth, controls autoimmune problems, reduces gastrointestinal mobility and inflammation (both important for controlling IBD), has potent action against many bacteria. In addition it may (the evidence is less convincing for these) help reduce body weight, may improve recover from spinal injury, may reduce obsessive-compulsive behaviors, may reduce itchiness, and possibly is instrumental in combating liver disease, kidney disease and lower urinary tract infections (the evidence for these last examples is more tenuous). CBD affects so many diverse systems because it controls every other neurotransmitter, which in turn control various specialized systems. 

While personal anecdotes are notoriously suspect, a study from the University of Colorado Veterinary School asked 457 dog and cat owners if CBD helped their pets with various ailments: 95% replied it helped with pain relief; 92% replied it lessened seizure activity; 92% reported it decreased inflammation; 88% reported it aided sleep; 83% reported it relieved anxiety; 82% reported it decreased vomiting; 79% reported it helped with muscle spasm; 73% reported it helped inhibit tumor activity; 71% reported it helped with digestive tract problems; and 62% reported it helped with skin conditions. 

Medical marijuana, with THC, is illegal to use on dogs, even where it's legal for people. Veterinarians cannot prescribe it. Hemp, with CBD, is legal. No, you don't need to meet a pusher in a dark alley to get some. You can just send off on your friendly Internet.  I recommend especially since they offer a coupon code ("CannabisScience") for 30% off  I was able to include in the book! 

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