A Rising Toxin

Veterinarians are seeing an increase of marijuana intoxication cases, and it might be just the beginning

by Larry Saavedra

Veterinarians are seeing more dogs hospitalized in distress with marijuana intoxication after ingesting the plant or marijuana edibles laced with the potentially fatal compound THC (tetrahydrocannabinol). Yes, marijuana intoxication is on the rise, but there are things dog owners can do to prevent it.

First, to get some perspective on marijuana intoxication, let’s look at some of the statistics that veterinarians and researchers are seeing. The ASPCA’s Animal Poison Control Center reported a 765-percent increase in marijuana-related calls over a 10-year period. In 1996, California legalized medical marijuana. Since ’99, at least 33 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws broadly legalizing marijuana for medical or recreational use.

“The calls are most often either from a pet eating a marijuana-laced baked good or plant material,” said Dr. Laura Stern, a veterinarian and director at ASPCA. “Edibles and any other concentrated form of marijuana, such as synthetic cannabis, marijuana wax, and oil are more dangerous than the plant material. The more THC a pet ingests, the more severe the signs generally are, so it takes a smaller amount of concentrated material like edibles to cause an issue than it would with plant material.”

Marijuana intoxication is complicated by the rising accessibility of medical and recreational marijuana. A recent five-year study in Colorado presented in the Journal of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care documented these findings in detail.

Dr. Tim Hackett of the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at Colorado State University was a leading researcher for the study. “The study showed that the numbers of dogs presented for emergency management of marijuana intoxication increased proportionally to the number of dispensaries that opened in the state of Colorado,” he said. Dr. Hackett explained that the study was published after marijuana was legalized in Colorado, but before recreational marijuana was available.

“Marijuana edibles are the entire problem,” added Dr. Hackett. Marijuana edibles can contain various amounts of THC, the primary intoxicate of marijuana that is the most harmful to dogs. “Dogs will eat sweets, baked goods, and butter/oil regardless of marijuana content. If those products are available, they will eat all they get their muzzle into. Large volumes of rich baked goods or fats [butters and oils] can cause significant gastrointestinal disease with or without marijuana. Pancreatitis [inflammation of the pancreas] is a specific and possibly fatal problem in dogs ingesting large amounts of rich and fatty food.”

Furthermore, Dr. Hackett stressed that fatalities occur from respiratory failure when animals vomit due to the edible base, which produces pancreatitis and gastrointestinal upset.
Cited in the Journal of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care were two dogs, a nine-year-old male Schipperke and a seven-year-old female cocker spaniel, that died during hospitalization after ingesting baked goods made with THC butter. “Dogs stricken inhale the vomit because they are so sedated from the THC,” Dr. Hackett said.

Dr. Stern of the ASPCA concurred. “We can see issues with edibles containing toxic ingredients other than THC, such as chocolate and xylitol. Xylitol can cause low blood sugar and damage to the liver. Chocolate can cause a high heart rate, hyperactivity, and seizures. Because edibles tend to be concentrated and only small amounts are ingested at a time, chocolate toxicosis is less common, unless a small dog ingests a good amount of the THC laced chocolate.”

The symptoms of marijuana intoxication include difficulty walking, agitation, tremors, sedation/lethargy and coma, dilated pupils, dazed expression, and vomiting. According to Dr. Hackett, “Dogs can have a low or high heart rate, inappropriate whining, low or high body temperature, and incontinence/dribbling urine.

“Supportive care includes simple fluid support, anticonvulsants if experiencing a seizure, anti-nausea medications if vomiting, and, rarely, ventilator support for respiratory failure. If an animal presents within a couple of hours of ingestion we might induce vomiting, pump the stomach, and/or give a universal antidote [activated charcoal] to absorb toxins in the gastrointestinal tract. Any later and we’ll just make sure the airways remain clear, body temperature is stable, and that the dog has adequate fluids to help metabolize the drugs.”

The ASPCA recommends that if you suspect your pet has eaten something potentially toxic, contact your veterinarian immediately. In some cases, your dog will require care by your veterinarian. In others cases, if your pet is stable and the signs that your dog are showing are mild, your veterinarian may recommend home care and monitoring.

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