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The Dope on Pot Dogs
Diagnosis and treatment of marijuana ingestion

Marijuana ingestion is one of the most common toxicities in dogs that I see on an emergency basis, and the post-exam conversation generally starts with the owner asking, "Do you see this often?" I just smile and say, "Well, this is Berkeley..."  

Pets are most frequently exposed to marijuana when they ingest “tasty” baked products, eat the remains of marijuana cigarettes, or get into somebody’s “stash.” Dogs can also get into mischief while out on hikes, finding and eating some abandoned drug.

What is marijuana toxicity?

Marijuana is the dried leaves and flowers from the hemp plant (Cannabis sativa) and the active chemical is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). THC is absorbed quickly into the bloodstream and signs of intoxication can be seen from within minutes up to 3 hours after exposure. The drug is eliminated quite quickly from the body and most pets will make a full recovery within 24 hours. However, mild clinical signs can last for up to three to four days because the chemical is absorbed into fat.

How is it diagnosed?

THC can be detected in blood or urine but diagnosis is generally based on unmistakable clinical signs as well as history from the owner. The signs are quite textbook, and this is such a common occurrence that our receptionists have learned to pick them out, bringing these pets to the treatment area saying, "looks like we have another pot dog." I myself treat several of these toxicities a month. 

More than 95 percent of the veterinary patients seen for marijuana ingestion are dogs, and almost all exposed animals will exhibit neurological signs. The most common clinical signs we see are incoordination, urine dribbling, drooling, low body temperature and an increased response to stimulation. At higher doses, dogs can suffer from hallucinations with barking or agitation. Seizures, low or high heart rates, respiratory depression and possible progression to a coma can also occur.

How is it treated?

If a pet has recently ingested the marijuana (within 30 minutes) your veterinarian can attempt to induce vomiting to minimize the amount of toxin available to be absorbed. However, if it has been longer than 30 minutes since ingestion, the anti-nausea effects of marijuana usually make it an unsuccessful attempt.

Your veterinarian may also elect to administer activated charcoal, which will help reduce the amount of THC absorbed. Subcutaneous fluids are often given to help prevent dehydration during the recovery period.

If clinical signs are severe, the need for supportive care will be indicated and your pet may need to be hospitalized. Supportive care entails intravenous fluids, repeat administration of activated charcoal, general nursing care, and observation of temperature, heart rate and breathing. If higher doses are ingested, some animals require sedation with valium, and in very rare cases, may require mechanical assistance with breathing if respiration is severely depressed. This is uncommon, but I have personally treated one patient who required ventilator support (he went on to make a full recovery).

Will my pet recover?

Even in extreme cases, the vast majority of animals recover fully and death very rarely occurs.

The main take-away here: Do not withhold information from your veterinarian if you suspect or know that your dog may have ingested marijuana—even if you think that there is no possible way your pet could have gotten into it. Your veterinarian is not under any obligation to report these events, and this information is needed to appropriately treat your pet, as well as avoid unnecessary (and expensive) diagnostic tests.

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Veterinarian Shea Cox has enjoyed an indirect path through her professional life, initially obtaining degrees in fine arts and nursing. She later obtained her veterinary medical degree from Michigan State University in 2001 and has been practicing emergency and critical care medicine solely since that time. In 2006, she joined the ER staff at PETS Referral Center in Berkeley and cannot imagine a more rewarding and fulfilling place to spend her working hours. In her spare time, she loves to paint, wield her green thumb, cook up a storm and sail. Her days are shared with the three loves of her life: her husband Scott and their two Doberman children that curiously occupy opposite ends of the personality spectrum.

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Submitted by Carolyn | November 2 2011 |

My neighbor's dog, a 90 lbs. husky-shepherd mix, ate an entire plate of "adulterated" brownies. He was pretty sick -- I guess all that chocolate on top of the pot. But he made a full recovery, fortunately.

Submitted by Shea | November 3 2011 |

Carolyn~ An entire plate is quiet a large amount! It is so fortunate that the vast majority of dogs do well (in the grand scheme of various toxicities), but it sure can be emotionally and physically stressful for everyone during the recovery process! Thanks for commenting!

Submitted by Amy | June 21 2013 |

I just went through this with my three-year-old 100 lb. lab/pit bull mix. He ate approximately a quarter-pan of brownies, maybe a little less. Oh boy did he go down hard, it was difficult not to panic. But he did indeed sleep it off, the worst effects were over the course of a few hours, and now, a little less than 24 hours later, he is nearly totally recovered. I appreciate the calm, common sense, nonjudgemental treatment of the subject in this article. I have learned an important lesson about food safety and am hoping (though it's unlikely) that my dog *may* have learned a lesson about eating food off the countertop...seriously, thank you, Dr. Cox.

Submitted by Kelsey | December 21 2013 |

I met a dog owner who claimed her dog loved pot. She said when her dog got into her stash it was hilarious how her dog seemed unable to move, drooling profusely, soiled itself, and was acting like it was hallucinating. It astounds me how people can see these symptoms as "hilarious". Unlike us, the dog has no idea what's happening to it. If I were put into that kind of situation, I'd be terrified! Why do people think it's any different for a dog?

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