Pet owners worry about dogs sickened by marijuana
ORLEANS, Mass. (AP) — There’s a new drug crisis on Cape Cod and the Islands, and its victims may come as a surprise.
“He was so stoned, it was terrible,” said Linda McCann, of Orleans, about 12-year-old Brahms.
Brahms is a minipoodle.
As marijuana dispensaries open throughout Massachusetts following legalization of recreational and medical pot in the state, veterinarians are responding to an increased caseload of emergencies involving dogs sickened by cannabis toxicity.
Within the past week, five dogs at the Eastham Veterinary Hospital have been treated for poisoning caused by marijuana ingestion, according to Brittany Knepper, a nurse at the hospital.
The surge in cases prompted the hospital to send an email to its customers Wednesday alerting them to the drastic increase in cannabis toxicity incidents and directing owners to be aware of symptoms and to take action if marijuana ingestion is suspected.
“It’s a rare day that we don’t have a ‘pot dog’ hospitalized in the ICU in Buzzards Bay,” said Dr. Louisa Rahilly, medical director of Cape Cod Veterinary Specialists, which has hospitals in Buzzards Bay and Dennis. “I’m increasingly angry,” she said.
Dr. Kirsten Sauter, owner of My Pet’s Vet in Vineyard Haven, has seen five cases in the past few months at her practice.
“It’s my most common toxicity problem,” she said.
For Brahms, Oct. 4 was a typical day that began with a morning walk along Nauset Beach in Orleans.
McCann, his owner, was distracted picking up a piece of trash in the beach parking lot, but a leashed Brahms couldn’t resist eating a cigar-shaped object he found on the ground. She noticed there was trash and a dumpster in the parking lot full of remnants from a recent music festival held at the beach, but thought Brahms had simply eaten the flattened brown head of a cat-o’-nine-tails plant.
“Hours later, we thought he was having a stroke,” McCann said. “He couldn’t walk, he was peeing everywhere and was hypersensitive to everything.”
A dead giveaway that something was wrong with Brahms was the marked departure from his typical cheerful and social behavior.
“He usually barks at neighbors, greets people and the highlight of his day is getting a treat from the mail man,” said McCann. “But he didn’t move. His eyes were so dilated.”
Brahms, who weighs less than 20 pounds, was rushed to his local veterinary office, and then transferred to the Cape Cod Veterinary Specialists hospital in Dennis where he spent the night.
Symptoms exhibited by Brahms mimic those associated with brain tumors and neurological disorders in canines, adding to the alarm and anxiety of pet owners and veterinarians when the dogs are presented for treatment.
In Brahms’ case, a urine test showed he tested positive for THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.
The diagnosis: Brahms had eaten a marijuana “blunt,” a hollowed-out and often flavored cigar wrapper filled with pot, that was carelessly discarded in the beach parking lot.
Dr. Daniel Hebert, originally from Dennis Port, is the owner of Duxbury Animal Hospital. He said a telltale sign that a dog has been poisoned by marijuana ingestion is dribbling urine, paranoia and twitchiness.
Walking with a “drunken gait,” if the dog can even walk at all, is also a major symptom, according to Rahilly.
“It’s scary,” she said. “They often can’t walk, are vomiting and urinating. For an owner who doesn’t know what happened, they often think it’s a stroke.”
“The ones I’ve seen looked stoned and high, it was pretty obvious,” Sauter said.
Hebert also noted dogs can also get hungry — “the munchies” — toward the end of the episode.
While eating marijuana plants and buds is harmful to dogs, edible cannabis products pose even more of a danger. They often resemble dog treats and have higher concentrations of THC. Many also are made with chocolate, another toxin for dogs.
“Tinctures are very scary,” said Knepper, who also advises dog owners to keep pets away from edibles that are marketed to diabetics, as they likely contain xylitol, which is extremely toxic to dogs.
“Pot butter,” cannabis-infused butter that increases the potency of the weed and often is used to bake brownies, is particularly dangerous, according to Hebert and Sauter.
Sauter recently treated a pet on the island who had consumed pot butter that had been disposed of on the grass outside a house. While the ingestion could have caused coma and death, the dog survived, but not before needing to be placed on a ventilator at an off-island hospital.
Fortunately, most dogs that ingest marijuana survive and recover if they receive prompt medical attention.
“It can be fatal, and that’s the scariest part,” Knepper said. “High concentrations can cause respiratory suppression and low blood pressure and lead to a fatality if not treated and monitored closely. It’s dose-dependent, so marijuana ingestion can be worse for smaller dogs.”
A common treatment is intravenous lipid infusion therapy, which involves a liquid fat that runs through a dog’s veins. Since marijuana adheres to fat cells, the intravenous lipid therapy helps dogs eliminate it in urine so the toxin doesn’t stay in the body for longer periods, Knepper explained.
In the past, dog owners were hesitant to admit they possessed or used marijuana when they brought a sick pet to the veterinarian, but the perceived stigma appears to be subsiding now that cannabis is legal, she said.
“Nobody will get in trouble,” Knepper said. “We don’t care if you use pot.”
In most cases, the recovery period is typically 12 to 24 hours, said Dr. Kevin Smith, veterinarian and co-owner of the Hyannis Animal Hospital in West Yarmouth.
“Similar to a person, if they ate too much edibles, it would be a bad 24 hours,” Smith said.
After treatment on a Thursday, Brahms was back to normal by Monday, McCann said, underscoring the importance of seeking medical treatment as soon as possible.
Rahilly said dogs are being exposed to marijuana seemingly everywhere — parks, beaches, parking lots — and for people who keep marijuana in their home, danger can be minimized.
“It’s a drug,” she said. “Just because it’s legal, doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous. Lock it up and keep it in a place they (dogs) can’t get at it, just like you’d do for a kid.”
The rise in cases on the Cape and Islands is also happening in other parts of the state and the country. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals recently reported marijuana-related emergency calls in 2018 grew to 1,800 compared to 208 a decade earlier. The Pet Poison Helpline based in Minnesota announced marijuana cases increased 448 percent over the last six years.
“With its legalization in various states across the United States, marijuana is becoming very common in households,” according to the group.
A study published in the Journal of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care showed a correlation between the number of marijuana licenses in Colorado and the number of marijuana poisoning cases at the two veterinary hospitals in the state between 2005 and 2010. Two dogs that ingested marijuana baked products during that time died, according to the report.
Dr. Kiko Bracker, a veterinarian at MSPCA-Angell, a humane organization with medical offices in Boston, Waltham and Westford, said there have been zero marijuana-related deaths during his time there. Symptoms for animals are relatively similar to humans, he said, but are much more severe because of the disparity in body weight.
“If a 150-pound human eats a cookie, they feel high for six to 12 hours,” Bracker said. “But if you give that to a 15-pound dog that’s a tenth of the weight, it’s a lot of marijuana, so they’re going to have a different experience.”
Bracker said his hospital is not allowed to recommend or prescribe marijuana, as there’s been no guidance provided by the American Veterinary Medical Association. But there’s ongoing debate about whether there are untapped medical marijuana benefits for pets, similar to the discussion surrounding medical marijuana for humans.
Information from: Cape Cod (Mass.) Times, http://www.capecodtimes.com