How cannabis litter can attract — and harm — animals

Legalization of cannabis has made it easier for animals to accidentally ingest the substance while walking outdoors, elevating concerns about THC toxicity in pets.|

Lisa Mattson, who lives in Healdsburg and works in the wine industry, had a recent scare with Dante, her 6-year-old, 15-pound Italian greyhound. As she was working at an afternoon photoshoot in a vineyard set back from traffic, she and a colleague, who had her six-month-old Cocker Spaniel with her, thought it was a good place for the pups to roam free. The dogs were off-leash for much of the afternoon.

About an hour after the three-hour shoot wrapped up, Mattson noticed Dante was acting strangely, panting and whining for no apparent reason. By 7:30 p.m., he had grown agitated, unsettled and thirsty. Before long, he was projectile vomiting. By the time Mattson and her husband were ready for bed, Dante was hiding in a closet. He couldn’t walk, was shaking and screeched when they tried to touch him.

Off they went to the emergency animal hospital.

After examining Dante for just a minute or two, the vet asked if he had been exposed to marijuana. A test revealed the presence of THC in dog’s body. The doctor treated him with fluids to hurry the movement of THC through his body and by about 8 a.m. he was nearly back to normal. He did, however, suffer a side effect familiar to anyone who enjoys cannabis: He got the munchies. At a dog’s birthday party later that day, he lapped up a lot of doggie ice cream.

At first, Mattson and her husband couldn’t figure out how Dante ingested marijuana, as they don’t smoke and don’t keep cannabis in their home. But after learning that her friend’s Cocker Spaniel had symptoms similar to Dante’s, Mattson concluded it must have been in the vineyard, possibly tossed out by visitors from a state where it remains illegal.

“People come to Wine Country,” Mattson said, speaking from personal experience, “and indulge in legalized cannabis. When it comes time to head home, they toss it out, not realizing that roaming pets and wild animals may be attracted to it.”

Karl E. Jandrey DVM, an Associate Professor of Clinical Small Animal Emergency and Critical Care and Associate Dean for Admissions and Student Programs at UC Davis, confirms that the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital is seeing an increasing number of cannabinoid intoxication since legalization. Animals find it on trails and in parks without their humans realizing it. Some dogs and cats need nothing more than extra comforting and fluids to counteract the effects, but others require additional medical intervention including, if caught in time, having their stomachs pumped.

If you’ve resisted keeping your pup on a leash, including on leash-free trails, or your cat indoors, this is an argument in favor of doing so. Even a small amount like a roach - the butt end of a marijuana cigarette - can pose a problem to small animals, domesticated or wild. A stoned skunk or a crow high on pot would be a worrisome sight. If you spot cannabis detritus, pick it up and dispose of it safely.

Although THC toxicity is a recognized problem with cannabis, in a seemingly counterintuitive way, another cannabis-related product is getting attention for potential benefits to pets: CBD products.

CBD stands for cannabidiol and is one of the major components of cannabis. Although there are no peer-reviewed studies, CBD has been touted by manufacturers for offering a range of potential benefits to humans and animals, including pain management, relief from insomnia, control of epileptic seizures and the calming of anxiety. Federal laws have made research difficult, though resistance to the benefits of CBD is slowly changing. Earlier this year, the FDA approved it as a treatment for two rare forms of childhood epilepsy.

Jandry is hopeful that changes are on the horizon, especially in California, with the passage of Assembly Bill 2215, which was signed by Governor Brown in September and takes effect after the first of the year.

“I hope that we will be able to move legislation forward more quickly so that needed studies can allow us to help our patients,” Dr. Jandry wrote in a recent email. Currently, veterinarians in California are prohibited from discussing the topic, including with their clients, but, after Jan. 1, the bill will allow them to address both cannabis and CBD with those with whom they have an established doctor-client relationship.

In the meantime, information about the benefits of CBDs for pets are anecdotal.

Shawna Alapa’i, who lives in Marin County and is a five-time hospice mom for Muttville, a San Francisco-based rescue operation for elderly dogs, was walking her latest charge, Mabel, to Pet Food Express for a bath when the dog collapsed in the parking lot, losing control of her bladder and crumpling to the ground. With help, she got Mabel to a plant bed, where she fell again and lost control of her bowels.

Once inside Mabel collapsed onto the cool concrete floor. When Alapa’i could not rouse her, she asked a member of the staff to get a bottle of Pet Releaf CBD oil and slipped two droppersful into Mabel’s mouth. Nearly instantly, Mabel came to and recognized both her human and her companion dog, Nani. Within five minutes, she was able to walk back to the car.

Since the incident, Mabel has gotten two doses a day and has not suffered another episode. Alapa’i withheld a morning dose to see what might happen and by the middle of the day, Mabel began to falter and so her twice-daily medication continues.

In her work with dogs entering the final phase of their lives, Alapa’i has found CBD to be helpful with anxiety, osteoarthritis, dementia and general pain.

Kathy Anderson, manager of Cultivate Home in Sebastopol, found a CBD product so helpful in easing joint pain in her elderly dog Max that she plans to carry the oil in the store.

Odessa Gunn, who lives in Forestville and has been an animal rights activist for twenty years, uses CBD tincture to ease arthritic pain in her 9-year-old pot-bellied pig, Irvy McPigglesworth.

She first learned of the effectiveness of CBD in humans and before long heard testaments from pet owners about how well it works.

“I was skeptical,” she said recently, adding that she was truly shocked at how effective CBD is for pets.

“I believe in pharmaceuticals. CBD does not replace medicine but it can be very helpful for a range of difficulties, including, possibly, seizures.”

“I find it particularly helpful for anxiety, such as the anxiety some dogs feel when riding in a car,” she explained. Like humans, Gunn emphasizes, all animals should be treated individually. What works to relieve pain in one cat, for example, may have no impact at all on another. And there can be inconsistencies in the products themselves, and in correct dosages, so any pet owners considering CBDs for their pet should arm themselves with information, talk to their veterinarians (after Jan. 1) and proceed with caution.

It is extremely important to keep the difference between CBD, which is not psychoactive, and THC, which is, in mind when selecting a product for your pet.

“I strongly discourage giving any THC whatsoever to animals,” Melrod says.

After all, Dante had no idea what was going on when he accidentally overdosed. He couldn’t comfort himself, as humans can, by reassuring himself that “it’s just a drug, it will wear off in a few hours.”

Michele Anna Jordan has two dachshunds and one calico cat. Email her at

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