Julianna Carella was running a popular marijuana edibles company in San Francisco when she started hearing clients were feeding her products to their pets—a huge safety concern, since marijuana is toxic to dogs and cats.
So in 2013, Carella founded Treatibles, a company that makes hemp chews for pets so they get the purported health benefits of cannabidiol (CBD) without the high of the psychoactive compound tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
Because hemp contains less than .3 percent THC, Carella thought it was legal to sell across state lines and in Canada, and for several years, Treatibles sold CBD chews and oils via the Canadian e-commerce site Shopify. But in April 2018, Shopify closed the Treatibles account and told Carella she’d sold products in at least one jurisdiction that prohibits their sale.
“The biggest problem with Shopify cutting us off like that is that suddenly it made it impossible for our customers to purchase the product when, in many cases, they need it for their animals’ health and well-being,” Carella told The Daily Beast. “Many of our customers are using this product to help eliminate seizures.”
Sheryl So, head of corporate communications at Shopify, told The Daily Beast the company doesn’t comment on individual merchants, but that Shopify’s Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) describes the activities that are not permitted on the platform.
“We investigate material reported to us and take action if it violates the AUP,” she said. “In Canada, only licensed producers are authorized to produce and sell cannabis for medical purposes. Licenses are issued by Health Canada under the Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations.”
The incident between Shopify and Treatibles highlights the confusion swirling around the issue of cannabis and pets in North America—from both legal and health standpoints. For starters, there is often a misperception among medical marijuana patients that their medicine could also help their pets. But THC can have a range of adverse effects on pets, including seizures and even death. A 2012 retrospective study in Colorado found a four-fold increase in marijuana toxicity cases in dogs after medical marijuana was legalized, and that two dogs died after eating edibles made with marijuana butter.
CBD, on the other hand, is touted by advocates for its health benefits to people and pets. The compound in the Cannabis genus of flowering plants interacts with the body’s endocannabinoid system, a group of lipids and receptors involved in physiological processes like appetite, pain sensation, and memory. CBD products with a low-THC, high-CBD ratio have been used to help balance the nervous system and treat epilepsy in children and pets, and manage conditions like chronic pain.
While there is a great deal of anecdotal evidence about the positive effects of CBD on cats and dogs, there is very little scientific research because CBD is classified in the U.S. as a Schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substances Act, making it illegal at the federal level in the United States. Carella said she started by testing Treatibles with pets of friends and family members, then distributed free samples at medical marijuana dispensaries in California. The first 2,500 samples had postcards for customer feedback attached.
“We all know that it’s completely asinine that CBD is a controlled substance at all—it doesn’t even get you high, and it absolutely has medical value,” she said. “We’re not out here getting teenagers stoned. We’re getting dogs with seizures to stop having seizures. We’re getting cats with high anxiety to stop freaking out on anybody who comes to the door. It’s not like we’re causing harm. We’re doing nothing but good for these animals.”
Veterinarians Sarah Brandon and Greg Copas launched a hemp supplement company called Canna Companion in 2014 in Washington state after a decade of testing dosages on their pets as well as feral cats they trapped and released. They’ve found the CBD products support digestive processes, joint health, and the immune system; maintain healthy neurological function; and encourage a calm demeanor.
However, Brandon said they’ve also run into legal roadblocks because various agencies have different regulations surrounding cannabis. Canna Companion stopped selling hemp products in Canada after the Canada Border Control Agency began blocking shipments in 2015.
Big changes on the horizon could further confuse the issue. The Hemp Farming Act of 2018 proposes making hemp legal by declassifying it as a Schedule 1 drug in the U.S and making it an agricultural commodity.
Bigger still: Recreational marijuana should become legal throughout Canada this summer.
“Cannabis is coming out of prohibition so it’s going to take several years to get it all lined up,” Brandon said. “Probably another decade would be my guess.”
Ian Sandler, a veterinarian who serves on the National Affairs Committee of the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, said the organization and “veterinarians in general” are concerned about a potential spike in the number of animals inadvertently ingesting high-THC cannabis products meant for humans.
“You may see vomiting, you may see diarrhea, and then you’ll see a lot of neurological events—animals shaking, they may fall over, a certain amount of dysphoria like they just don’t know where they are,” he cautioned.
Erik Altieri, executive director of the nonprofit National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) in Washington, D.C., agreed that marijuana products intended for humans should be kept away from pets. On the flip side, he said hemp products with CBD have shown benefits. For instance, he’s heard many anecdotes about CBD oil curbing nausea in pets undergoing cancer treatments.
“Most of the things that it works for in humans, it would work for in animals as well, because they have very similar endocannabinoid systems,” he said.
Altieri noted that while THC and CBD are the two most medically active compounds in cannabis, there are numerous other “phytocannabinoids” in cannabis, so using a product made from the whole plant is ideal.
“It’s called ‘the entourage effect,’” he said. “It’s how they interact with each other that really produces the best results.”
Still, Altieri emphasized that CBD—no matter its source—is a Schedule 1 drug and considered illegal by the U.S. government.
“It’s amazing the amount of people that call in regard to hemp-derived CBD,” he said. “Store owners assume it’s legal and then get raided and call us.”
Veterinarian Tina Wismer, medical director of the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center, said most calls to the hotline about marijuana ingestion involve edible products high in THC.
“Our cases have increased over the past few years, and veterinarians across the country have indicated an increase in the number of cases they are seeing,” she told The Daily Beast. “However, when compared to chocolate or ibuprofen, the case numbers are still small.”
In 2017, the ASPCA’s poison control hotline handled 1,486 cases involving marijuana (up from 979 in 2016) and 17,540 involving chocolate. She noted that chocolate-based edible products pose a “double danger,” but signs of toxicity from THC alone are cause for concern, including urinary incontinence, low body temperature, and tremors.
“Symptoms differ in dogs and cats in the following ways: Cats tend to act drunk, stare off into space, and startle easily,” Wismer said. “Dogs may act drunk or become quite agitated. Dogs that eat edibles can develop low blood pressure and become comatose.”
She said CBD products have been shown to be effective in treating pain, inflammatory diseases, and osteoporosis in humans, but there is no known appropriate dose for pets and more research is needed.
“There is research being done on CBD-only products for pets, including one study at Colorado State University,” she said. “However, at this point the evidence that exists is mostly anecdotal and there are more questions than answers on safety and effectiveness.”
Veterinarian Heather Loenser, senior veterinary officer at the American Animal Hospital Association, said pet owners should always consult their veterinarian before giving their animal any new supplement or medication.
“The jury is still out on how marijuana will be used in pets. Many veterinarians believe that, within our practice lifetime, we will develop solid evidence on what diseases can be successfully treated with THC, CBD, or both, and the doses that are therapeutic, and yet not toxic.”