CBD and pets is a hot topic right now in the medical cannabis world with many pet owners using the cannabis compound to treat conditions like arthritis and epilepsy. I, like most animal lovers, would do anything it takes to make sure my dog remains happy and healthy. So when my cousin’s 12-year-old arthritic Staffordshire Bull Terrier, Freya, was no longer responding to her prescribed pain medication, I was the first to recommend she should try CBD oil. Unfortunately, her vet had never heard of CBD and dissuaded her from continuing any further.
This is a common story, as perhaps only the most forward thinking vets favouring a natural approach would consider prescribing an oil extracted from the cannabis plant, even if it doesn’t contain any THC, the part that gets people (and animals) stoned.
While rejecting CBD out of hand is certainly not the most balanced approach, vets, like doctors, practice evidence-based medicine, meaning if there are no clinical trials proving a drug’s efficacy, they are unlikely to prescribe it. This is sadly the case for CBD, both for animals and their two legged, human companions.
So let’s take a look at what we do know so far about CBD and pets.
What Is CBD?
CBD or Cannabidiol is a compound known as a cannabinoid found in the cannabis plant. Most CBD products on the market are extracted from industrial hemp - which is the same as cannabis, but with only trace amounts of the psychoactive cannabinoid THC. This means that it can be taken without feeling high or disorientated; after all, who wants a stoned dog or cat?
Studies in humans show that CBD has an anti-inflammatory and pain relieving effect and can reduce seizures and ease feelings of anxiety. Some preclinical research also suggests that CBD might have anticancer properties, but this has yet to be confirmed outside of the laboratory.
Despite being isolated in the 1940s, scientists are only now discovering how CBD works in the body (both human and animal). The relatively recent discovery of the Endocannabinoid system in the 1990s has also had a huge impact on our understanding of how CBD works.
A selection of our products
The Endocannabinoid System
The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a complex network of cannabinoid receptors and cannabis-like chemicals (endocannabinoids) found throughout the body of all vertebrates (so that’s humans, dogs, cats, guinea pigs, horses etc).
Its function is to bring homeostasis or balance to the body. We can think of it rather like a dimmer switch: if there is too much or too little activity in the body, the ECS springs into action to bring us back into balance again.
The ECS can also be stimulated by plant cannabinoids, but this effect varies according to the compound. Let’s take THC for example. THC is almost a perfect fit for the endocannabinoid receptors found in the brain and central nervous system. So by introducing THC into our systems, we elicit a direct effect onto the ECS.
But with CBD, things aren’t so clearcut. That’s because CBD barely has any effect at all on the endocannabinoid receptors. Despite that, many scientists claim that it can strengthen our endocannabinoid system. They say this because CBD has been found to inhibit an enzyme that causes the endocannabinoid anandamide to be broken down in the body. So in basic terms, more anandamide means a stronger endocannabinoid system.
Scientists have also observed that CBD activates non-endocannabinoid receptors such as the 5-HT1A serotonin receptor which helps to regulate mood, the TPRV-1 receptor involved in inflammation and the pain response, and it also blocks the orphan receptor GPRR5’s signalling, which researchers believe may improve bone reabsorption.
Research Into CBD
Due to its ability to affect multiple targets, CBD is the hot cannabinoid right now when it comes to research. Unfortunately, due to the restrictions into investigating medical cannabis, much of this is at the preclinical stage. This means that scientists perform their research on cell cultures (in vitro) or on animal models (in vivo).
Research that has made it to human clinical trials is limited and includes conditions such as epilepsy, chronic pain, anxiety, addiction, PTSD, and Parkinson’s.
It would be easy to think that if CBD is found to be effective for these conditions in humans, then the same must be said for animals. But this may not be the case.
Humans And Animals Are Not The Same
One of the main reasons that medical cannabis critics doubt its efficacy in humans is that many of the claims are based on research in animal models like rats and mice. ‘Humans are not the same as rats’ they say - and in many ways they’re right. Differences between humans and animals can include plasma levels after CBD administration (how much CBD there is in our blood), the effects CBD has on different targets and how CBD interacts with existing medications.
We can therefore flip the argument and say that just because clinical trials have been performed on humans for epilepsy and chronic pain, we can’t assume that CBD is safe for the same conditions in pets.
Research Into CBD For Pets
Despite there being a raft of CBD for pets products on the market and many anecdotal accounts of owners seeing great results in their furry friends, right now there is no conclusive, scientific proof that CBD is an effective alternative to prescribed medication in pets.
As in the case of humans, this has much to do with the heavy restrictions placed on cannabis. The amount of scientific research is severely limited by the Schedule 1 classification of cannabis, which officially considers cannabis as having no therapeutic benefit as well as carrying a high risk of addiction and abuse.
While even the World Health Organisation has recently found that “CBD exhibits no effects indicative of any abuse or dependence potential,” and that “it is generally well tolerated with a good safety profile,” right now in the US the Drugs Enforcement Administration (DEA) still considers CBD an illegal Schedule 1 Drug.
The DEA’s position, announced earlier this year, caused Pennsylvania State University to cancel a clinical trial due to investigate the use of CBD in osteoarthritis and itchy skin conditions in dogs.
The Director of the University’s clinical trial centre, Michael DiGregorio, is quoted as saying, “the ambiguity in this process has really brought us to a screeching halt. It is research that needs to be done, because there are a lot of CBD products out there."
Luckily this has not deterred other research facilities. Auburn University's College of Veterinary Medicine is about to begin a study, pending federal approval, looking into CBD and epilepsy in dogs. Although Dawn Booth, a professor at the university, admits that CBD’s classification creates a "major, major, major, terrible roadblock" for researchers.
But the most extensive clinical research into CBD for dogs will take place at the Colorado State University, where researchers using double blind, placebo trials will see whether CBD is effective in treating arthritis and epilepsy in dogs.