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Updated April 18, 2024 — The proliferation of marijuana and similar products in the last decade has led to a dramatic increase in reports of accidental exposure in pets.  

According to a 2019 report from the Animal Poison Control Center, calls regarding cannabis ingestion increased by 765%, and they now list marijuana among their top 10 reported toxin emergencies. The Pet Poison Helpline reported a similar increase, up more than 400% in cannabis-related phone calls over six years. Ask any veterinarian in emergency practice, and they'll concur that ingesting products containing cannabinoids are becoming more common as their accessibility increases.  

It’s essential for owners to know more about this growing problem and to learn to recognize signs of toxicity and what to do in case of accidental ingestion or overdose.  

Cannabis 101 – The Basics 
THC is the primary psychoactive component found in marijuana, and CBD is the primary non-psychoactive component of marijuana. In addition, there are synthetic cannabinoids (SCB) that are much more potent than traditional marijuana, and these are associated with more severe clinical signs in exposed pets.  

Interestingly, veterinarians occasionally used marijuana in veterinary medicine until 1937, when the first of several laws passed penalizing them for prescribing the drug. Subsequent legislation criminalized its use and possession. 

Despite these legal restrictions, interest in the medical properties of marijuana persisted. Studies teased apart the chemical composition of marijuana (these compounds are called cannabinoids) and identified specific receptors within the human body for these chemicals.   

In addition, scientists discovered that humans (and many animals) naturally produce cannabinoids within the body (endogenous cannabinoids), forming the endocannabinoid system. The endocannabinoid system is involved in many bodily processes (via cell receptors), including:  

  • Sleep  
  • Mood  
  • Appetite  
  • Memory  
  • Pain perception  

The location of endocannabinoid system receptors might not be a surprise when we consider some of the purported medical benefits of cannabis-derived products (as well as the psychoactive effects). The list also gives us insight into the signs of toxicity.  

Signs of Toxicity in Pets 
The clinical signs associated with marijuana and THC exposure most reported by pet owners and veterinarians include:   

  • Lethargy  
  • Mental dullness and depression  
  • Unsteady gait  
  • Vomiting  
  • Urinary incontinence or dribbling  
  • Increased sensitivity to noises or movement as well as touch  
  • Excess salivation  
  • Pupil dilation  

 Less commonly reported signs include agitation, aggression, seizures or coma.  

Many of the clinical signs of marijuana and cannabinoid toxicity are similar to other types of toxins except for one – a sudden onset of urinary incontinence. Urinary incontinence can provide owners (and veterinarians) with an essential clue that a pet has encountered marijuana or THC.  

CBD is rarely associated with any clinical signs in cases of accidental exposure or overdose. Lethargy and depression, staggering and agitation were the most common problems reported by owners in these cases.  

The excellent news is fatalities are rare for pets ingesting marijuana, THC products or CBD products. Some pets need hospitalization for supportive care, but the vast majority of pets recover uneventfully.   

Owners need to seek veterinary care in cases of known ingestion or if a pet is acting strangely without a known exposure since many of the clinical signs associated with marijuana/THC/CBD toxicity can mimic more severe types of poison exposure.   

Diagnosis and Treatment 
No easily accessible tests for marijuana/THC/CBD/SCB are available for veterinary screening. The human urine drug screening test isn’t reliable for use in pets. More advanced testing is available but is costly and not readily available.   

Unless there is a known exposure, diagnostics often focus on ruling in or out other toxicities with similar signs, including alcohol, ethylene glycol (anti-freeze), illicit drugs, or human medications such as opioids, tranquilizers, sedatives and antidepressants.   

Treatment is based on clinical signs and the time elapsed from ingestion (if known).  

Inducing vomiting is a potential treatment if the time from ingestion is within 60 minutes and the pet is alert. Activated charcoal can also be given orally to these pets to bind any material in the stomach – again, this treatment should only be used in alert pets.  

In pets that are depressed, lethargic and showing neurologic signs (and are therefore in greater danger of aspirating vomit into their lungs), supportive care is a better option.  

Preventing Exposure Is Key  
Prevention is always easier and better for your pet’s well-being than treatment (and less costly). Keeping products intended for humans well out of the reach of pets is essential.  

Owners must be especially vigilant regarding edibles, which are highly palatable for our pets. Consumption of edible products is the most common route of toxicity for our pets, as reported by poison control hotlines and surveys of practicing veterinarians. Of particular concern are edibles containing high doses of chocolate, which is also toxic to pets.  

Finally, owners should always consult with their veterinarian before giving a pet any cannabinoid product, including CBD. While studies are underway investigating product use in pets, there is little scientific evidence as to the benefits (and possible side effects) of cannabinoids for cats, dogs and even birds. Until science catches up, proceed with caution and guidance from your veterinarian.   

If you would like to support science to save animals, including filling in our knowledge gaps about CBD use and other cannabis-derived products in pets, please donate today. Your gift helps fund more than 200 animal health studies that the Foundation supports annually to save and improve the lives of animals everywhere.