CBD for pets has gotten more popular, though vets urge caution

The increase in amateur fireworks earlier this summer rattled a lot of nerves, and not just human ones. In Washington’s Kingman Park neighborhood, where fireworks became a nightly occurrence in May and June, a Labrador-hound mix named Nefertiti made herself a new home in the tiny space between the couch and the wall. Or, sometimes, the closet.

“She would be shaking and cowering and eventually hiding so we couldn’t find her,” said her owner, Sarah Wilson. “It just got worse and worse.”

A veterinarian prescribed a medication that seemed to temporarily paralyze Nefertiti, which frightened Wilson.

“I used to suffer from anxiety myself. And I thought if all this is doing is paralyzing her reaction, and not dealing with the mental part, that’s going to be even more scary, right?” Wilson said. She couldn’t bear to see her dog suffer, so she turned to her family for advice. One relative asked the question that changed the trajectory of Nefertiti’s summer: “He was like, ‘Have you tried CBD oil?’”

It’s a question that has been at the top of many dog owners’ minds lately. CBD, or cannabidiol, is a compound that comes from hemp, but it does not contain tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the marijuana compound that makes people high. Proponents say that it can be used to address a variety of animal maladies, including anxiety and certain skin conditions. Some studies say it can decrease arthritis pain and control seizures. It’s available in several forms, including oils, capsules, topical lotions and dog treats.

Enthusiasm for natural and inexpensive remedies has helped the market take off at an astonishing speed: The pet CBD category grew 946 percent in 2019, according to the Brightfield Group, a cannabis market research company. The rush has come in part because of the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, which eased federal legal restrictions on CBD products. And some surprising boldfaced names have jumped into the industry. Martha Stewart has announced that she is developing a line of CBD pet products, expected to debut this fall. Boxer Mike Tyson and Cesar Millan, of “The Dog Whisperer” fame, are teaming up on a dog CBD brand, too. Even the reggae-rock band 311, which has a line of human CBD tinctures and capsules, added a CBD oil for dogs in December.

“It’s the same thing” as their human CBD, but a different flavor, said Nick Hexum, the band’s lead singer, who gives CBD to his Rhodesian ridgeback. “The dogs aren’t going to eat mint, you know what I mean? So you have to have the bacon flavor.”

But peer-reviewed research on CBD for dogs is still limited, and the few studies that have been completed had small sample sizes. And even though pet treats and tinctures containing CBD are sold in stores and online, they have not yet been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, which means veterinarians aren’t allowed to recommend them.

Gail Golab, chief veterinary officer for scientific affairs and public policy at the American Veterinary Medical Association, urges caution.

“It’s not that we don’t see potential in these products, because we do,” she said. “It’s that we want their potential to be demonstrated through FDA approval and we want to make sure that owners can be confident that what they’re giving their animal is something that’s actually going to help them.”

We want to make sure that owners can be confident that what they’re giving their animal is something that’s actually going to help them.
Gail Golab, American Veterinary Medical Association

How does a pet owner know it helps? Our pets can tell us only through their body language. In Wilson’s case, once she began giving Nefertiti CBD oil, “you could get her to come lie down with you or on you, and she would go back to sleep, which is a huge improvement over the sort of panicked, constant, would-not-settle” energy the dog had during fireworks previously.

But as well as people think they know their dogs, humans may overestimate the benefit that CBD has on their pet. Dogs instinctively try to hide their pain.

“On the human side, there is a fair amount of placebo effect,” said Golab, and that extends by proxy to their dogs: In studies, owners’ observations “were more positive than the objective measures were. That certainly doesn’t mean that there was no effect. But it does mean perhaps that effect is partially the impression of the observers, rather than the actual effect of the drug itself.” She worries about the risk of people trying CBD in place of “medications that have been shown to be effective, and have been shown to be safe.”

Veterinary behaviorist Daniel Mills of the University of Lincoln in England said that CBD “is likely to make the animal more relaxed in a more nonspecific way. It can help with pain,” he said. But given its recent proliferation, “I always tell people, you’ve got to be careful about fads because they come and go. It has its uses. But like most things, it’s probably being hyped.”

That hasn’t stopped dog owners from trying it.

“Folks who have used it to treat inflammation and pain, you can see the mobility of the pets had improved after they started taking CBD,” said Emily Crandall, a former marketing leader at Leafly, an online CBD marketplace and cannabis resource.

On the human side, there is a fair amount of placebo effect.
Gail Golab, American Veterinary Medical Association

If you’re going to give your dog CBD, make sure it’s an animal product — CBD manufactured for people may have added ingredients that are unhealthy for dogs. Don’t give dogs products containing THC, which can make them sick. Check to see whether the company provides testing results that prove the product has the potency and ingredients that are claimed on the label — some products aren’t what they say they are.

Dosage wise, recommendations vary. “That really is dependent on an animal’s age and weight,” said Crandall. Her recommendation is “start low and slow, and see how the animal reacts.”

For Nefertiti, and Wilson, it’s made all the difference.

“I don’t know how it works. All I know is that when we do give it to her, it’s not that [her anxiety] disappears, but it’s much more manageable,” Wilson said. “She will cuddle with you instead of hiding in some hidy-hole in the house that you didn’t know existed.”

Story editing by Mary Hadar. Copy-editing by Jordan Melendrez and Laura Michalski. Art direction and design by Allison Mann and Courtney Kan.

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