April 20th is one of the chillest days of the year, but maybe not so much for our pets. A new survey of veterinarians in the U.S. and Canada suggests they are seeing more pets poisoned by cannabis products lately, following its legalization in many places. Dogs were the pets most commonly sickened by cannabis, but vets also reported seeing stoned cats, iguanas, ferrets, cockatoos, and even horses. Thankfully, most cases were mild.
Study author Jibran Khokhar, a researcher studying substance use at the University of Guelph in Ontario, and his colleagues had noticed a recent increase in reports of pets coming down with cannabis overdose. But these reports were anecdotal and often lacking important information like the actual outcomes for the animals.
So his team decided to conduct a survey of over 200 veterinarians in both the U.S. and Canada in 2021, asking them to recall the pet overdose cases they came across before and after 2018, the year that cannabis was fully legalized nationally in Canada. Though cannabis is still banned at the federal level in the U.S., it’s now legal in a majority of states, including many where it’s allowed recreationally. And since 2018, more than a dozen states have legalized or decriminalized it.
Around two-thirds of vets reported no major change in the amount of poisoning (also called toxicosis) cases they saw annually after 2018, but the rest did see a change, most often an increase in cases. The study’s findings were published in PLoS ONE.
“Our key takeaway is that there has been an increase in cannabis-induced toxicosis cases following legalization in both U.S. and Canada,” Khokhar said in an email to Gizmodo. Much of this increase likely comes from legalization providing more access to these products, but he notes that owners feeling more comfortable with reporting these cases to vets could be a factor, too.
While pot pet poisonings might sound scary, most incidents required little more than supportive care and monitoring at home, and even in serious cases, pets were rarely hospitalized for more than two days and usually made a full recovery. The most common symptoms reported by vets were urinary incontinence (loss of bladder control), disorientation, lethargy, a slower heartbeat, and a lack of coordination. And specialized treatments most often involved IV fluids, along with induced vomiting and activated charcoal for cases where heavy poisoning was suspected.
There were 16 reports of pet deaths linked to cannabis, but Khokhar points out that these cases were likely more complex than usual. The chocolate found in some cannabis-laced edibles can be especially dangerous to dogs, for instance. The size or underlying health of the pet might have also contributed to their deaths, with smaller dogs being especially at risk.
The study’s findings will allow Khokhar and his team to better understand how cannabis can affect dogs and other pets. Dogs, for instance, seem to break down THC (the psychoactive component of cannabis) a bit differently than humans, which might contribute to their wider range and duration of symptoms. They hope their work can educate vets and owners as well.
Edibles are a common source of poisoning, both because they are easy to ingest and because they tend to have a larger effect in the body. Some pet owners have reportedly started to medicate their pets with cannabis, but the survey doesn’t provide any sense of how often that might be contributing to these poisonings. At least in one case, a dog might have gotten sick from eating the feces of a person who was taking cannabis, while other dogs reportedly swallowed joints that they found on an outside walk.
While there are many benefits of cannabis legalization, the team’s findings do suggest that more could be done to keep pets safe from these products. “It is important to have awareness of the existence of this as well as the symptoms to keep an eye out for,” Khokhar said. “The other important part of this would be policy-related changes to both packaging and possibly warning on labels for edible products.”