Suitable for a dog? The latest science on CBD for pets

This article originally appeared on Well-known magazine.

The 13-year-old Norwich terrier, previously lame and stiff, can enjoy walks again. A toy poodle with epilepsy, finally freed from seizures. In case reports, these and other dogs' ailments were alleviated with CBD – cannabidiol – after little success with conventional treatments.

There is growing evidence that CBD, a non-psychoactive ingredient of cannabis, is potentially effective in treating various illnesses in pets, such as pain and itch Unpleasant to attacksays Chie Mogi, chief veterinarian of Animal CBD Research Association in Japan, which has reported such cases in veterinary publications.

The positive reports also extend to more rigorous trials involving placebos. “This was exciting to me because, honestly, I was worried that, despite the hype, it wouldn't show a difference if studied more objectively,” says veterinary neurologist Stephanie McGrath of Colorado State University, co-author of a review by CBD for dogs and cats in the 2023 Annual Review of Animal Biosciences.

Although the evidence for effectiveness is still mixed and pet owners and researchers face inconsistent ingredients, many scientists are hopeful that CBD can expand therapeutic options for furry patients.

The CBD boom follows relaxed cannabis regulations over the past decade, which opened the door for both hemp industry and research. In 2018, the US farm bill legalized hemp with 0.3 percent or less THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the cannabinoid primarily responsible for marijuana's high). Companies would now be able to sell products that comply with that guideline, including supplements containing CBD. Since then, hemp products for pets have proliferated and the global market is expected to reach $3.05 billion by 2025.

While CBD does not produce a high, it does interact with numerous receptors in the brain, providing a rationale for therapeutic effects. Additionally, CBD is processed more slowly in dogs and cats than in humans, so its effects last longer, says veterinarian Joseph Wakshlag of Cornell University, who also serves as chief medical officer of ElleVet Sciences, a CBD company for pets. Suggest surveys many owners have tried treating pets with CBDusually for issues related to painsleep, anxiety and seizures.

Only recently have a few states passed laws explicitly allowing veterinarians to recommend CBD products, leaving prescribing hemp products a gray legal area in other parts of the country. And many vets remain skeptical. However, recently research has shown benefits for specific conditions.

Two 12-week clinical trials involving a total of 30 dogs reported that CBD relieved the symptoms of epilepsy, thus increasing the clearance in cases where other medications have not helped sufficiently. In both studies, dogs already taking anti-epileptic drugs were dosed with CBD twice daily – one study at 2 milligrams per kilogram of body weight, the other at 2.5 milligrams. Compared to placebo treatments where dogs received only the regular drug, CBD-dosed dogs experienced an average of about 30 percent fewer seizures over the course of the trial.

Veterinarian Stephanie McGrath and veterinary technician Breonna Kusick examine Lucy, a participant in a Colorado State University clinical trial on CBD use for epilepsy. CREDIT: JOHN CLINE / CSU PHOTOGRAPHY

Some dogs and cats are bad itchy, apparently allergic to the world, and sometimes even veterinary diets and medications do not have much impact. In a 2021 study, 24 kennel dogs were given a dose of up to 4.5 milligrams (per kilogram of body weight) of CBD daily for three weeks. The canines wore activity monitors on their collars that tracked how long they walked, ran, shook their heads, scratched and rested. The study reported that dogs given CBD scratched up to 50 percent less, although some results did not reach statistical significance.

Another report documented reduced skin redness and hair loss in eight dogs with atopic dermatitis or chronic skin irritation. Cannabinoids may protect against inflammatory reactions in the skin – and therefore against itching, according to other research.

Some studies have reported a benefit in arthritic dogs, although results are mixed. In a piece of paper16 dogs with osteoarthritis were given CBD oil twice a day for four weeks. After two and four weeks, owners responded to surveys about their dog's pain and activity level. Compared to a placebo treatment, owners reported more reduces the pain of their pets, in addition to an increase in activity while taking CBD. In one measurement, a subjective rating scale with a maximum score of 40, pain ratings dropped from an average of 21 to an average of 14. “Dogs that jump back into the car… they climb the stairs, they jump on the bed – all these things are what the owners notice,” says Wakshlag, co-author of the paper.

But another pain study reported no improvement in arthritis in 23 CBD-dosed dogs. In this report, the researchers relied on veterinary assessments of mobility, which included walking the dogs on a treadmill-like device that measures the strength of their paws – making it possible to detect subtle differences in gait, such as less limping.

Testing the effectiveness of CBD in calming pets has also shown mixed results. In a 2020 study where 16 dogs listened to an audio track of fireworks, CBD showed no effect on signs of stress such as cortisol levels in the blood and tail folds. But a more recent study found that dogs using CBD did fewer stress signals during car journeysincluding reduced cortisol and less frequent lip licking and whining.

Conflicting results do not necessarily mean that CBD is ineffective. First, every measurement method and protocol has limitations, says Pernille Holst, a veterinary oncologist at the University of Copenhagen. The doses used in studies also vary widely; for example, in the car journey study, dogs received almost three times higher doses than dogs in the fireworks noise study.

Even the chemistry of the hemp product used can make a difference, Wakshlag says. Full-spectrum hemp extracts that contain cannabinoids in acidic forms may work differently than CBD isolates.

More research could clarify these questions and also help fill in the CBD picture for cats, for which research is particularly scarce. But large-scale clinical trials aren't cheap, and pet CBD companies don't have the same resources as human pharmaceutical companies, says University of Kentucky animal science researcher David Harmon, who co-authored the fireworks noise study. “There is no conglomerate with big capital that can make these things happen,” he says.

Complicating matters for owners is the fact that cannabis businesses have little oversight and sometimes produce questionable products. In one study of 29 hemp productsMore than half fell 10 percent or more outside the advertised CBD range. Researchers discovered heavy metal contamination in four products. “I wish there was more oversight and regulation to make sure the labels match the product, but right now that's not the case,” McGrath says.

A good bet for pet owners is to purchase from companies that participate in voluntary programs such as the National Council for Animal Supplementssays Wakshlag.

Kris Paige, a retired veterinary technician, enrolled her dog Purdy in a Colorado State University clinical trial for CBD treatment after the Anatolian shepherd started having grand mal seizures about every three weeks. During the six-month trial, Paige saw the frequency of Purdy's seizures drop – although not as much as she had hoped – to an average of one every four weeks. Nowadays, she no longer gives Purdy hemp oil daily, but only after an attack, which seems to reduce the dog's confusion and anxiety.

Paige is happy that Purdy participated in the study. “Although the results were not what we were hoping for,” she says, “it did add to the knowledge.”

This article originally appeared in Well-known magazine, an independent journalistic initiative of Annual Reviews. Register for the newsletter.

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