Is CBD safe for your Pet? The Truth Revealed
Do you have a German Shepherd who suffers from osteoarthritis? How about a chihuahua with severe anxiety, or a cat with irritable bowel syndrome?
Over the past few years, the popularity of CBD oil has exploded as science has recognized its ability to treat a wide variety of conditions. And increasingly, pet owners are using CBD oil to treat symptoms like chronic pain, anxiety, digestive issues, and even seizures. But is CBD oil really as good for pets as it is for people?
There’s strong evidence CBD oil is an effective treatment for a variety of conditions in humans. But there aren’t a lot of studies yet on its impact on dogs or cats—although the body of research is growing quickly. And even though most studies of the uses of CBD oil have focused on humans, that knowledge is a strong foundation for scientists to research its therapeutic value for Fido, too.
How CBD Oil Works in Pets vs. Humans
The biology of how CBD oil interacts with the body is similar in dogs, cats, and humans—in fact, all vertebrae. So it’s reasonable to assume that at least some of its benefits for humans will extend to your fur babies, but with a few important differences.
Here’s how it works: CBD oil interacts with the body through the endocannabinoid system. This system helps cells throughout the body stay within the range of their ideal, stable state. If a cell becomes inflamed, for example, the endocannabinoid system reduces the inflammation and normalizes the cells.
In everyday processes throughout the body, this happens through a three-step process. First, neurotransmitters activate the system. These neurotransmitters are molecules produced within the body, but they’re similar in shape to the cannabis molecule (which is why cannabinoid oil can interact in a similar way).
Then the neurotransmitters bind to cell receptors, primarily two types called the CB1 and CB2 receptors, delivering their “message” to the cell. Last, enzymes break down the neurotransmitter after the cell is back in range of its ideal state.
When you take CBD oil, it binds to the CB1 and CB2 receptors sort of like the neurotransmitters, causing a similar response in the cell. By sending a “message” to cells to return to their ideal state, CBD oil can reduce inflammation, decrease pain, and lessen anxiety.
Scientists first discovered the endocannabinoid system while researching how marijuana affects the body—the human body. So while we know that this system exists in animals, there’s a lot we don’t know about how it functions.
For example, we know dogs have both CB1 and CB2 receptors. Cats also have CB1 receptors, but we don’t know for sure whether cats have CB2 receptors. Some research also indicates that dogs may have more cannabinoid receptors in the brain than humans do, which could mean even small doses of CBD oil have a greater impact on them.
These differences mean you should be careful when using CBD oil for your pet, and always talk with your vet before you start your pet on any alternative treatment.
The evidence does indicate, however, that CBD oil is an effective treatment for pets, just like it is for humans. And it’s likely that as research continues, scientists will discover it’s useful for a wide variety of symptoms. Right now, we can conclude that CBD oil is a helpful treatment for pets with several specific conditions.
One of the most common conditions that pet owners treat with CBD oil happens to be, thankfully, well-researched: chronic pain.
Numerous human studies indicate that CBD oil is an effective treatment for chronic pain. It’s useful both for pain caused by a specific condition like arthritis and also for generalized chronic pain. This could be because CBD oil can help reduce inflammation, which is often associated with pain. It could also have to do with the fact that CBD oil interacts with the receptors in the brain that cause you to feel pain.
Most of the studies on CBD oil as a treatment for pain in pets looked at dogs with osteoarthritis, a common condition in larger breed dogs. It can begin pretty early in life, reducing your pet’s activity and enjoyment. Fortunately, there’s a pretty solid body of research showing that CBD oil is both safe and effective for dogs with osteoarthritis, and it can significantly improve your arthritic pet’s quality of life.
Compared to other conditions on this list, seizures are relatively rare. But they’re also serious and often difficult to treat, which may be why much of the research on CBD oil has focused on this condition.
And the results are impressive: studies show that CBD oil is very effective at preventing seizures for types of epilepsy that don’t respond well to other medications. In fact, in 2018 the FDA approved CBD oil as treatment for two specific types of childhood epilepsy, Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome, making this the only therapeutic cannabis use currently approved by the FDA.
The research on CBD oil for pets with epilepsy is just ramping up now, but early results are encouraging. A small 2019 study at Colorado State University found that cannabinoid’s ability to reduce seizures in humans does extend to dogs, with 89 percent of epileptic dogs in the study experiencing improvement in their symptoms. So if your pet has epilepsy, it’s likely that CBD oil could help.
Anxiety is another condition that many pet owners treat with CBD oil. There’s less research on it, and most studies involving CBD oil and anxiety look at its effectiveness when used short-term in specific, anxiety-inducing situations. For humans, it’s been tested in situations like public speaking and social anxiety. The research indicates that it’s effective for this purpose. So if your dog gets nervous during fireworks, an evening dose of CBD oil on the fourth of July could make your holiday a lot less stressful.
But what if your terrier is just nervous all the time? Could CBD oil make your jumpy little dog more of a relaxed companion? This is another area that researchers are only just beginning to explore, but the early results look promising.
Although there’s currently very minimal research on whether CBD oil helps calm down nervous pets, studies do show that it could help generalized anxiety disorder, depression, and similar conditions in rats and humans.
What We Don’t Know
Many pet owners hope that, soon, scientists will deem CBD a miracle cure-all for their favorite animals. But there’s a lot we still don’t know about CBD oil for pets, and there are several inherent challenges in animal studies that don’t exist in human studies.
For example, pets can’t tell us how they feel, which could mean that studies miss potential side effects. Another issue is that some studies relied on owners’ subjective observation to measure CBD oil’s impact on activity level and pain.
In addition, studies on dosing levels and safety in pets are almost nonexistent. Although we know that toxicity for CBD oil in animals is very low, we don’t have a lot of information on exactly how much oil is effective for what size pet, or on the best way to give a dose.
The most common way that pet owners give animals CBD oil is by mouth, but it’s likely that dogs, at least, aren’t able to absorb much with an oral dose. It’s also likely that using it topically is more effective for chronic pain.
We do know that humans can get side effects from CBD oil, and animals can probably have similar side effects, including dry mouth and fatigue.
For many pet owners, the proven benefits of CBD oil for humans are enough to demonstrate it’s good for Fido, too. But you should be aware of potential concerns if you choose to use CBD oil for your pet.
First and most importantly, pure CBD oil has very low toxicity for animals, which isn’t true for the marijuana (Sativa/Indica) plant. THC is toxic for animals, and too much can be fatal. If you’re using high-quality pure CBD oil, it shouldn’t contain any THC, but cheap or low-grade CBD oil sometimes includes traces or more of THC. Choose a brand that uses independent testing for purity—don’t skimp when you buy.
Second, long-term, regular use of CBD oil is more likely to have potential side effects. That’s because CBD oil is highly lipid, meaning it dissolves easily in fat. This means it can dissolve into tissue like muscles, and it can build up in the body, leading to different effects than a one-time use has. We don’t know yet what the most likely long-term side effects could be in animals, so talk with your vet about what to watch for if you’re using CBD oil for your pet’s chronic condition.
Last, you should be aware that your vet can’t legally prescribe or recommend CBD oil for your pet. CBD oil is considered a supplement, not a medication, so it’s not regulated by the FDA.
You should still talk with your vet, however, if you’re considering using CBD oil to treat an issue for your pet. Your vet knows your pet well and can direct you to resources that will help you decide the right amount and method of treatment to improve your pet’s quality of life.
Lisa C. Baker is an Atlanta-based freelance writer specializing in health and lifestyle topics. She’s passionate about herbal and alternative medicine. In her spare time, she volunteers at a free clinic. She can be found playing with her two kids, walking her two dogs, and drinking copious amounts of coffee.