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Cannabis and canines don't mix — my dog found out the hard way

Gus the Pug is feeling better after being at the vet with suspected marijuana toxicity.
Gus the Pug is feeling better after being at the vet with suspected marijuana toxicity. - Colin Chisholm

My Monday did not get off to a great start.

It started with a shaking, I could feel it at the bottom of the bed by my leg. Exhausted I looked down to see my dog, Gus, a two-year-old black pug, shivering.

Startled, I shot up out of bed and went over to him to see what was the matter. He was shaking all over, ears and tail down. When he went to move his limbs seemed unable to muster the effort.

For a usually rambunctious 10-kilo ball of energy, this was very distressing. I called my vet right away, somewhat panicked.

Gus was able to eat and eventually gained some of his strength back and did his business outside before I whipped over to the professionals for some answers.

By now he had regained more of his vigour and I began to calm down a bit, but the vet proceeded with an exam.

Dr. Jessica Thompson at the Cobequid Animal Hospital gave him a full physical and, to be safe, did some blood tests as well to check his kidneys and liver.

The results came back clear. Phew. Over $300 later, but it’s my dog and he’s worth it.

Marijuana toxicity

What could it have been? Her guess, based on his earlier symptoms, is that it was likely marijuana toxicity.

I need to say upfront here that he did not have his stomach pumped and his stool wasn’t examined for the drug, so I can’t be sure.

Whatever it was that he consumed was likely discovered on one of our strolls the day before through Selena Elizabeth Jefferson Park in Fall River, just behind the community centre.

I saw him quickly snap something up in his mouth — Gus tends to eat first, ask questions later — but didn’t see what it was.

The next morning he was acting like a zombie pug.

Rise in cases

But Dr. Thompson’s guess lead me to ask — with the legalization of marijuana in Oct. 2018, has there been a rise in marijuana toxicity amongst animals?

According to Dr. Tara Riddell at the Metro Animal Emergency Clinic in Burnside, which deals primarily with severe cases, absolutely.

“We are definitely seeing an increase in the numbers of animals who have ingested marijuana and marijuana products,” Riddell said. “I can't give you a percentage increase, unfortunately … But I would say it would be rare to have a week go by without seeing at least one (case of marijuana toxicity), but sometimes several in a week.”

Riddell said the majority of cases that come in are dogs, although they do get the occasional cat as well.

“Symptoms are typically highly suggestive and include increased sleepiness, falling over, or walking as if drunk, which is called ataxia,” she said. “They can have characteristic facial hyper-reactivity (flinching away from movement, excessive reaction to movement towards the face), dribbling urine.”

Other symptoms can include increased or decreased heart rate, increased and decreased body temperature and sometimes vomiting, but that is less common, she said.

Generally, marijuana toxicity is not life-threatening for pets, but some cases can be more severe than others.

"We will often recommend decontamination (making them vomit the drug) if the owner knows when the marijuana was eaten, and (giving the dog) oral activated charcoal,” she said. “In more severe cases where the dose eaten was higher, we may recommend admission to hospital for monitoring of vitals.”

In the most severe cases, Riddell said she'll admit the animal hospital for repeat doses of activated charcoal, and sometimes intravenous fluids.

Edibles biggest culprit

The most severe toxicities they see come from dogs that have consumed edibles: pot-laced cookies or baked goods, and marijuana-infused butter used to make edibles. Even these severe cases are unlikely to be life-threatening but she does recommend care for them.

But why do animals, and specifically dogs get into so much trouble with marijuana? Well, it turns out, much like people, they love the stuff.

“Dogs really love cannabinoids and will selectively eat them off the ground, in parks, at home, from ashtrays,” she said. “Sometimes they eat them with things that cause other problems (like marijuana butter), which can result in pancreatitis.

“We have had multiple cases of intoxication from dogs eating the feces of people who have eaten the drug (pot is eliminated in the stool) outdoors.”

One of the reasons the drug affects dogs more severely than humans is because dogs have far more cannabinoid receptors in their brains.

Being a millennial, I also tweeted about my experience and based on the reaction I got online, I could tell I definitely wasn’t alone.

Peter Ziobrowski, The Chronicle Herald’s Shipping News columnist, said his pup has had toxicity twice, although both of those times were from discarded cigarette butts.

Michelle Hébert, an author from Halifax said she also had a similar experience, saying her vet has noted a spike in these incidents as well.

And as the snowbanks continue to melt away and the detritus of winter is exposed, I worry that more pups could end up in the same situation.

So please, keep a close eye on your dog when out for a walk — and if you are smoking, please don’t throw your butts on the ground. Gus thanks you in advance.

Toxicity warnings

These are the most common toxicities that Dr. Tara Riddell at the Metro Animal Emergency Clinic in Burnside sees:

  • Ibuprofen, which can cause renal failure, and ulceration of the gastrointestinal tract.
  • Xylitol (an artificial sweetener in many candies and gum), which can cause seizures and liver failure
  • Mould toxicity from eating compost or other rotting material, which can cause seizures and tremoring
  • Lilies, especially in cats, any part of the flower (including the water they're kept in) can cause renal failure and can be fatal
  • Marijuana
  • Other owner medications ( such as antidepressants)
  • Grapes and raisins
  • Chocolate

Most of the above are indoor toxins, but mould toxicity is common from getting into rotten food, green bins, and animal feces (such as deer) outdoors.

What to do

If a pet owner suspects their pet has eaten marijuana, Dr. Tara Riddell advises owners to monitor the pet at home for the following:

  • increasing sleepiness to the point where you cannot get your pet up, where they frequently fall over, or can't be roused
  • vomiting which persists or worsens
  • symptoms that do not resolve over four to six hours
  • generally, if the animal is showing any symptoms other than very mild symptoms of marijuana toxicity, evaluation by a veterinarian is recommended
  • other illnesses and toxicities which are more significant than marijuana can mimic symptoms of marijuana so if you are concerned, get the pet checked
     

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