We thought our dog was having a stroke. She was stoned.

With legalized marijuana now available in many states, pets are showing up at vet clinics intoxicated

(Elizabeth von Oehsen/The Washington Post)

Last summer, my husband had gone hiking with our two dogs when one of them — a year-old rescue who weighs in at over 50 pounds, can scale steep inclines like a mountain goat and has the speed and grace of an Olympic athlete — suddenly collapsed.

Unable to stand, Dafna was disoriented and had also become incontinent. Was it a seizure? A stroke? A snake bite?

We piled into our car and headed to an emergency veterinary clinic. I held Dafna’s head in my lap, convinced the end was near. This puppy had destroyed two pairs of my prescription eyeglasses, a new leather wallet, and had torn gashes in my clothes. She’d chewed through my daughter’s internet cords. Still, I loved her like no other.

At the clinic, the staff rushed Dafna to a back room with the professionalism expected in a life-or-death situation. But we thought we also noticed a hint of amusement? Even a smirk?

A few moments later, we learned why. The vet explained that while they were running a urine test to confirm their suspicions, they were pretty sure Dafna had ingested THC, maybe from a marijuana plant growing wild along the trail, or perhaps she’d eaten a discarded pot roach.

Basically, our dog was stoned.

It turns out that’s not so unusual these days.

In Vermont, where we were and where possession and use of marijuana was legalized in 2018, the vet said she now sees as many as 10 cases per week of pot intoxication. According to ASPCApro and local vets, that’s happening across the country.

“We are seeing a higher amount of marijuana/THC toxicities in dogs since legalization,” said Nastassia Germain, medical director of the Veterinary Emergency Group in D.C. “I am also seeing more severe cases due to access to medical grade THC/marijuana.”

Hanna Rosin, a podcast host who lives in D.C., was on a walk this fall with her adult rescue dog, Brian, a possible beagle-Chihuahua mix, when he suddenly became wobbly. “Like wobbly drunk,” Rosin said. She wound up at Germain’s clinic where “the vet took one look at him and was like, ‘THC,’” Rosin said.

“My brain didn’t compute,” Rosin said. “I was like, what is THC? Is that a common dog term that I don’t know? And then I was like, Wait, what? Like THC? And she’s like, ‘Yeah, like weed, like your dog ate some weed.’”

Germain said her clinic sees on average two or three pot intoxicated dogs per week these days, and with holidays and family gatherings, “we see more toxicities of all different kinds” including from chocolate, grapes, garlic and prescription medicines, in addition to marijuana.

We are seeing a higher amount of marijuana/THC toxicities in dogs since legalization.
— Nastassia Germain, medical director of the Veterinary Emergency Group

Intoxicants usually work their way through a dog’s system in a couple of days, during which they may be sleepy or more lethargic than usual. And with some IV fluids and anti-nausea meds at the vet, they’re generally fine. But the level of danger may correlate to the size of the dog, its overall health, and what amount and what form of THC has been ingested.

According to information on the Veterinary Emergency Group website, eating buds from a marijuana plant is more dangerous than eating the leaves. With pot gummies, it’s not just the THC that is a problem for dogs, Germain said. Often, gummies are sugar-free and use a sugar substitute called Xylitol, which in the worst case can be fatal for dogs. Even in very small amounts, this ingredient may lead to low blood sugar, seizures, and possible liver damage or failure.

Similarly, marijuana brownies pose a risk to dogs as much for the chocolate as the THC, Germain said. “Now we’re dealing with two different types of toxins that can have varying clinical signs,” she said.

Although there have been reports of pet deaths from THC, Germain said she hasn’t seen this in her clinic. “It can get severe where they could have low or abnormal heart rates, low blood pressure, and sometimes tremors that can lead to seizures and coma,” Germain said.

Germain said she has never come across a cat who has ingested marijuana, although it’s theoretically possible the THC ingestion would produce the same symptoms in felines. “They’re just a little bit more selective of what they eat than our canine friends,” Germain said. “I mean we can barely get them to eat their cat food sometimes.”

What about Colorado, one of the first states to legalize the sale of recreational marijuana 10 years ago?

Veterinarian Lily Davis, who recently completed a one-year internship at an emergency room specialty veterinarian hospital in Denver, said her team saw dogs with THC toxicity at the rate of “at least one a shift or one a day, if not more.”

Yet, even there, with pot in all its forms so widely accessible in Colorado, people were often surprised to learn why their pets were acting funny, Davis said. “We tried to very politely say, is it possible that your dog could have ingested marijuana or marijuana containing products?” she said. “And almost always people would say, ‘Oh, I have no idea … we don’t have anything … .’”

Trying to figure out where an affected dog might have found the substance and in what form can require diplomatic skills by vets. Germain said she tells people, “We’re not the cops, we’re not going to report you, our job as vets is to just help the pets.” She described situations where family members had to be separated to get someone — the parents or the kids — to admit to having possessed the ingested stash.

Davis described one incident in which a schnauzer had come into the clinic trembling uncontrollably. Although the owner acknowledged having marijuana in the house, she was certain it was in a dog-proof container. Eventually, it became clear that the dog had gotten into the trash and consumed a cotton Q-tip-like device that the owner had used to clean her smoking apparatus, and which still had enough THC residue to have an effect.

Given that signs of intoxication are fairly easy to spot and that, in most cases, the animal’s system will naturally flush the toxins out, is it necessary to rush to the vet as we did?

“It’s a good question,” said Davis, who is now doing a veterinary anesthesia residency at the University of Tennessee. “I think, humanely, from an empathy standpoint, to see them feel nauseous and dizzy and just not good, it would be nice if people can afford to come into the vet and get some supportive care just to help them feel better and get through it.”

Dafna’s full recovery took a couple of days. We ended up with a bill for $317.98 and a slew of very bad jokes from our adult children.

As a rule of thumb, if the smell of marijuana is in the air — as it increasingly is in the 21 states, D.C. and Guam, that have legalized recreational use — the stuff is also likely to be in the street. And if you happen to have the substance at home, store it carefully away from pets, vets said.

“We think the dog can’t get on top of that table. They can, they’re just like toddlers. Like if there’s a way and there’s a will, they will do it,” Germain said.

A couple of days after Hanna Rosin’s dog went wobbly, a 3½-year-old hound mix belonging to her partner, podcast host Lauren Ober, suddenly began listing and had trouble getting up. This time they did not rush to the vet; it seemed clear that there was either something growing in their neighborhood or the dogs had tag-teamed in getting into the same trash — or stash.

In our case, Dafna’s full recovery took a couple of days. We ended up with a bill for $317.98 and a slew of very bad jokes from our adult children: We should pick up a large pizza for Dafna, our kids recommended. Also, stop at a convenience store for a bag of some Cool Ranch Doritos. And play some Grateful Dead on the ride home.

Dafna spent that first night sprawled out on the deck, staring up at the starry Vermont sky. She appeared to be pondering the cosmos. By day three, she was sprinting through the woods, I hoped not in search of her next fix.