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Susan Tasaki

Susan Tasaki is a The Bark contributing editor.

Dog's Life: Travel
Austin: Mighty Dog Friendly

Set in the green and rolling Texas hill country, Austin is known for its eclectic cultural events—think Austin City Limits and SXSW—Lady Bird Johnson's bluebonnets in the spring and the bats of the Congress Avenue Bridge. It's also a pretty dog-crazy place, as noted by Beth Bellanti Pander of Austin's own Tito's Handmade Vodka, where she's the company's Program Manger of Vodka for Dog People. Here are some of her hot spots...

PLAY

Ahh … the water, the trees, the squirrel sightings: Red Bud Isle and Emma Long Metropolitan Park’s Turkey Creek Trail are great places for a leash-free dog to unwind. Dogs can go also off-leash at Walnut Creek Metropolitan Park, 293 acres of trails (which, FYI, they share with cyclists), hills and creeks. For a more contained experience in the central city, give Norwood Dog Park a try; it’s fully fenced and has a large, shaded main section and a separate area for small dogs. For time on the water rather than in it, stop by Zilker Park Boat Rental, where your dog’s welcome to join you in a canoe (bring his life jacket, as the rental company doesn’t provide them for dogs). Finally, if you and the pooch are in the mood for a movie, look into Austin’s “Movies in the Park” series, which started in April and runs through November in parks across the city; the pup will need a leash, but you'll both enjoy being entertained under the beautiful Austin night sky.

STAY

Consider taking the HomeAway route; at press time, the online booking site had 157 pet-friendly listings in Austin—which, coincidentally, is its home base.

EAT/DRINK

Dog-friendly eateries are thick on the ground in Austin. Jo’s Coffee not only welcomes dogs, it also sponsors the annual Lyndon Lambert Easter Memorial & Pet Parade. Perla’s serves some of Austin’s tastiest seafood, which can be indulged in on the patio in the company of your dog. Likewise, Mozart’s Coffee Roasters has patio seating (in this case, fronting Lake Austin) as well as—you guessed it—fine coffee drinks and a decadent selection of desserts. Three venues go the extra mile when it comes to kicking back with canines. Banger’s Sausage House and Beer Garden not only provides a leash-free area, it also makes a sausage just for dogs. At Dog House Drinkery, dogs are welcome to congregate with their people in the bar area or run off some energy in one of the Drinkery’s fenced OLAs. Wet your whistle under a shady tree at the Yard Bar’s off-leash dog park while your dog goes nuts on the agility course; the bar’s full-meal menu includes two “Dog Food” entries: Bones and Co sliders and house-made ice cream.

Beth notes that on Amplify Austin day, Tito’s Handmade Vodka does its part to raise money for local charities by creating a special cocktail served at participating watering holes.

Culture: Reviews
Book Review: The Right Side
The Right Side by Spencer Quinn, Book Review

Let’s start with what this book is not: it is not a new entry in the author’s “Chet and Bernie” series; the main character is not an awkward but insightful male PI and the dog is not a roguishly charming (and easily distracted) narrator. Rather, the primary human, LeAnne Hogan, is an army sharpshooter badly injured during her tour in Afghanistan, and the dog— a large, black Rottweiler/ Malinois-type mix with huge paws and a blocky head, unreadable eyes, and an oddly chopped-off tail—is no one’s idea of a pet. In another departure, the dog’s a female who keeps her thoughts to herself.

Here are the similarities, and they’re why readers of Quinn’s earlier books will also be drawn to this one: Like the Chet and Bernie books, The Right Side pairs a person and a dog with distinctive qualities and sends them on a quest. It powers along at a rapid clip. The dialog is sharp and natural. And it has a dramatic resolution.

The book opens with LeAnne as a patient at Walter Reed military hospital, being treated for serious physical and psychological wounds. Her roommate Marci, who lost a leg in a bomb blast, dies suddenly, sending LeAnne into an even deeper emotional tailspin. Checking herself out of the hospital, she heads west on the first part of her quest: to outrun her current life. Her trip ends in Marci’s rural Washington hometown, where she learns that her dead friend’s daughter Mia is missing, and where she reluctantly acquires the dog she eventually names Goody. Then begins the second part of the quest: find Mia.

The story drives forward in a series of chronological jumps. As LeAnne’s past and present converge, unsettling examples of the long reach of military intelligence abound. The Right Side excels in conveying the cost of war paid by its on-the-ground participants. LeAnne Hogan is a defiant, principled and absolutely stand-up wounded warrior in all senses of the clichéd term, and Goody has her back. Read this book.

Dog's Life: Humane
Animal Care Sanctuary Celebrates 50 Years!
Pennsylvania animal haven celebrates its 50th anniversary.
Animal Care Sanctuary Gounds

What do you call an organization that for 50 years has addressed the medical, behavioral and emotional needs of homeless animals? You call it an inspiring success.

In 1967, Lesley Sinclair left her job as an interior designer in New York City, bought a five-acre chicken farm in New Jersey and turned it into a nonprofit, no-kill sanctuary for homeless dogs and cats. Fifty years later, the Animal Care Sanctuary (ACS)—which since 1980 has occupied more than 130 acres of Pennsylvania countryside in East Smithfield and, more recently, Wellsboro—is still in the caring business. Roughly 500 dogs and cats, all of whom are monitored, microchipped, vaccinated, and spayed or neutered by the sanctuary’s resident vet team, are usually in residence. It has a vigorous adoption program, placing 90 percent of the animals it takes in. For those who aren’t adopted, ACS provides a forever home.

ACS’s no-kill policy was practically unheard-of in the 1960s sheltering world, and Sinclair’s pioneering adherence to it is just one of reasons for the “inspiring” label. Another is its long engagement in out-of-the-box thinking as a way to address the challenges that routinely arise in this type of work. ACS stands out in its embrace of innovative approaches to facilitating animal well being.

One example can be found in its alternative-housing program, which pairs dogs most in need of behavioral help with college-level pre-vet or animal science interns in onsite housing. Within this carefully monitored environment, dogs undergo individually tailored behavior-modification training regimes. To date, the program has a 100 percent success rate, with 24 of its 24 dogs now in new homes.

The organization’s support of shelter medicine also exemplifies its innovative thinking. ACS draws from a deep academic pool, one that includes Cornell, Purdue, Michigan State and Emory Colleges of Veterinary Medicine.

The sanctuary has the benefit of students’ time and attention and the students get a hands-on perspective on shelter medicine, learning the intricacies and demands of caring for the group as opposed to caring for a single animal in private practice. Janet M. Scarlett, DVM, MPH, PhD, professor emerita of epidemiology and founder of Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine, has been instrumental in making recommendations and providing guidance as ACS develops its robust veterinary team and intern program. The sanctuary puts equal effort into community outreach: The two clinics it supports provide the only low-cost wellness and spay/ neuter services in their respective counties. It educates the public on humane issues. And it vigorously advocates for anti-cruelty laws. Fifty years in the no-kill arena is an enviable achievement, and Bark salutes the Animal Care Sanctuary for all the good it’s done, and continues to do, for the most vulnerable members of the companion-animal world as well as the cause of humane treatment of animals everywhere.

We spoke to Executive Director Joan Smith-Reese about the changes and stresses that have come about in the last 50 years.

Bark: Whom do we have to thank for the Animal Care Sanctuary (ACS)?

Joan Smith-Reese: Lesley Sinclair founded ACS in 1967 in Toms River, N.J. She was from England, came to the U.S. during the war, was an interior designer in NYC and had a home in Toms River, on the Jersey Shore. She discovered that when beach residents returned home at the end of the summer, they often left their pets behind. She began rescuing those dogs and cats, and the rest is history.

She quit her job, bought a five-acre chicken farm and began the nonprofit ACS. From day one—long before any of the national organizations were focusing on spay/neuter—every animal was altered.

In 1980, after years of fighting New Jersey zoning regulations, she purchased 132 acres in East Smithfield, Pa., which is our current home. We recently added 64 acres at our Wellsboro site, one hour west of East Smithfield. We are so fortunate today to have so much land.

B: Fifty years ago, no-kill was still a pretty novel concept among mainstream sheltering groups. Why was it adopted by ACS?

JSR: That was the marvel of our founder. She believed every life was precious, and while the hope is always for a forever home, if not, we are the animal’s family. This is one of the reasons quality of life is such an important issue at ACS.

B: What kind of stresses, if any, does no kill put on a shelter/sanctuary? How does ACS address them?

JSR: Because there are still so many high-kill shelters in America, people who want to surrender do seek us out. We try to find ways for people keep their dogs and cats. If the issues are behavioral, we offer our services to help put together a plan and work with the owners (although, often, that’s not an option). If economics are the reason, we have a program called Project Home, which provides food, medical care and security deposits if landlords will allow a dog or cat; funding for this program comes from the United Way. The waiting list for owner surrenders is always our first priority, but we also help pull dogs from high-kill shelters, or shelters that want to be no-kill and, with our help, are moving in that direction.

B: What kind of changes has ACS seen and implemented over the past 50 years?

JSR: One really important change has been the advancement of shelter medicine through standards developed by the American Association of Shelter Veterinarians in 2010. The pioneer in beginning this curriculum is Janet May Scarlett, DVM, Cornell professor emerita in epidemiology, who created and taught the first shelter medicine course in the country at Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine and serves on the ACS Professional Advisory Committee.

We are also fortunate to have a director of veterinary medicine on staff to coordinate and oversee the vet team that cares for both our sanctuary animals and our two subsidized community clinics.

Another change is the use of behaviorists. ACS is privileged to have two, and their contribution is enormous. Dogs undergo an initial assessment on admission, and then a care plan is developed and modified as needed. Dogs are assigned to the canine care team, and they work on any issues using only positive reinforcement. We do a great deal of enrichment, including animal reiki, music therapy, aromatherapy, long walks in the woods, play groups, swimming, puzzle toys and so forth.

A big change now in the works is the way the kennels are designed. In the 1980s, the center aisle layout—dogs across from and next to each other, divided by chain link fencing—was state of the art. Today, we are in the midst of a capital campaign to change all of that. Our plans are to gut and rebuild our existing kennel so the dogs don’t face one another and have solid walls between them, natural lighting and noise abatement, among other things. It’s a $2.8 million project.

B: ACS has some interesting programs. How did they come about? What’s the process for evaluating and putting a new program into action?

JSR: We are fortunate to have talented staff who think outside the box, so new ideas come quickly. In order to be methodical, we start by presenting a concept at our leadership team meetings. Then, we decide which experts to bring in to help us evaluate our ideas.

A good example is our alternative housing program. We have pre-vet students who live with us for a semester and in the summer, we have far more applicants than we can take, so we needed a way to both whittle down the list as well as help our dogs. So one of our screening tools is “Would you be agreeable to living with one of our behaviorally challenged dogs, understand and accept training from the behaviorist, work with the dog and also collect data, and provide weekly reports?” We met with our Professional Advisory Committee for input and structure, then implemented this program. The interns who participate provide us feedback on what works and what could be improved. We have adopted 24 out of 24 dogs in the program, and the interns were the key.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Trending: Dog-Friendly Housing Associations
Dogs are being written into residential master plans.
Building community: At Bay Meadows in San Mateo, Calif., a popular agility course, and Halloween social.

While the baby boomer and millennial generations don’t have a lot in common beyond sheer size, they do often intersect around dogs. For different reasons, both groups are more likely to have dogs than children in their daily lives, and tend to consider their dogs as members of the family whose needs are taken into account when choosing how and where to live.

As a result, residential planners, designers and developers are increasingly integrating dog-friendly amenities into their master plans, and programming activities for dog people of all ages.

Inside, elements that make living with dogs more convenient and comfortable are showing up in the form of built-ins that replace crates and provide aesthetically pleasing and convenient gear storage and feeding stations. Transition areas—space off a garage or utility room where dogs can be cleaned up before coming inside— are another popular feature.

In Bluffton, S.C., Hampton Lake’s Dogpaddle Park is a fenced, activity-rich setting.

Outside, enclosed dog parks are a big draw. Access to safe, roomy off-leash areas close to home and away from traffic are, shall we say, catnip to dog owners. Extras such as sand pits, “splash pads,” and weave poles and tunnels are yogurt icing on the dog-food cake. Wide sidewalks, dog-safe (and dogproof!) landscaping and traffic-calming measures are also popular.

Apartment buildings and condos are getting in on the action as well. Some property developers are incorporating space for dog-grooming facilities (either businesses or tiled rooms with a water source and drying platform where dog owners can do the work themselves), doggie day care or retail pet supply stores into their plans.

Many homeowners’ associations (HOAs) are also coming to see the value of accommodating those with dogs. HOAs that either have a high number of dog people in residence or want to attract them are adding everything from waste stations and pickup bags to dog runs.

Both single- and multi-family housing areas find that a sense of community can be fostered by something as simple as putting up bulletin boards on which referrals for pet services can be shared or found, or by organizing social hours, dog parades or dog-friendly hikes for their residents.

What’s good for dogs can also be good for people; incorporating dog-specific features into residential areas means that those who don’t have or don’t care for dogs can minimize contact if they wish to do so.

A participant in the annual Howloween event at Bay Meadows, San Mateo, Calif.

In the end, what we look for when we look for a place to live often depends on what matters to us: a pool, an indoor gym, covered parking? If we share our life with a dog, proximity to a safe and convenient place for the dog to get some exercise, particularly a place we can walk to, is very, very high on the list, as is a community with a welcoming attitude.

Community is, in fact, one of the driving forces behind all of these developments. Many of us seek it out, boomers and millennials perhaps more than most. Among their other qualities, dogs serve as social bridges, facilitators of personal connections, even friendships and romances. As this trend continues to gain traction, one day, the “no dogs allowed” sign may be a thing of the past.

Culture: Reviews
Dog Reads: 6 Books For Fall
Great Dog Books For Fall

Run, Spot, Run

By Jessica Pierce (U of Chicago Press)

Bioethicist Jessica Pierce, whose book The Last Walk thoughtfully and honestly explored end-of-life care, dying and euthanasia for companion animals through her experience with her own much-loved dog, now takes on another sensitive subject. As in that book, in her new one she also addresses questions we rarely think about—or want to think about. Foremost among them is the morally ambiguous practice of keeping pets in the first place. Writing clearly, and clearly from the heart, she avoids academic jargon and provides us with reasons to really think about what we’re doing when we take animals into our lives.

The Pit Bull Life

By Deirdre Franklin and Linda Lombardi (The Countrymen Press)

A colorfully illustrated and thoughtful consideration of a type of dog who was once considered quintessentially American. Today, however, the words “Pit Bull” have become shorthand for something to be feared. The authors trace that transition and, continuing Franklin’s long-standing advocacy, inject the facts about these cheerful, resilient dogs into the national discussion. In doing so, they also provide a primer for Pit Bull owners, and potential owners.

Just Life

By Neil Abramson (Center Street)

In this novel, the author considers the balance between fear and compassion, and the ways politically expedient solutions threaten everyone. The story centers on a sanctuary for unwanted, abused and abandoned dogs in New York City and the veterinarian who operates it. When a dangerous and unknown virus spreads though their neighborhood, the sanctuary’s dogs are presumed to be the carriers, putting them and the people who protect them in even greater jeopardy. The pace is intense and the characters well drawn.

The Secret Language of Dogs

By Victoria Stilwell (Ten Speed Press)

In her new book, trainer Victoria Stilwell wants to help us understand what our dogs are telling us via their expressions, vocalizations and behaviors. A proponent of positive reinforcement training, Stilwell not only describes these various methods of communication but also, provides tips on ways to respond to them.

Farm Dogs

By Janet Vorwald Dohner (Storey Publishing)

An in-depth and beautifully illustrated breed guide to a hard-working class of dogs, Farm Dogs is hard to resist even if you live in a city apartment only big enough for a Chihuahua. In addition to familiar breeds such as the Jack Russell, German Shepherd and Border Collie, Dohner also discusses a number of more exotic types, including the Berger Picard, Mudi and the wildly dreadlocked Puli. She also offers pointers on puppy selection, adult rescue, socialization and training.

Home Alone—And Happy!

By Kate Mallatratt (Hubble & Hattie)

This highly illustrated book from the UK provides lots of good advice for preventing canine separation anxiety, which is far more challenging to fix than to avoid. The author, compassionately considering the subject through a dog’s eyes, suggests that teaching a dog how to be emotionally stable is more important than teaching him how to sit or heel. In this book, she shows us how to do it.

Culture: DogPatch
Wounded Warrior Dogs From Sculptor James Mellick
James Mellick’s Wounded Warrior Dogs

War is hell, the saying goes, and not just for soldiers. The highly trained military dogs at their side pay an equally severe price. Sculptor James Mellick has memorialized these dogs— and through them, the soldiers with whom they served—in a series of seven life-sized works. The Doberman missing a foreleg, a German Shepherd with a prosthetic paw, a Belgian Malinois with a metal plate: as hard as they are to contemplate, these dogs seem undaunted, a testimony to Mellick’s sensitivity and dogs’ innate, in-the-moment nature. Carved from cherry, poplar, sycamore, walnut and cedar, the sculptures came to life through a long process of designing, laminating, carving and finishing. Fine details—the bone structure under the fur; the curve of a leg; expressions conveyed by the eyes, brows and ears—are informed by Mellick’s lifetime with dogs as well as his current canine housemates, a Weimaraner and a rescued Lab/Weimaraner mix.

In his sculptural work, he says, his intent is to “reach a unity of shape and content, so that the secondary forms and shapes within the body of the dog not only serve as symbols of the meaning, but are also important design elements in the composition.”

 

This isn’t Mellick’s first dog-related artistic foray; he’s been investigating and experimenting with dogs as metaphors for more than 30 years. His first was Stacking Dogs (1985), a 12-foot tower of dogs ranging from an Irish Wolfhound to a Chihuahua, a comment on human arrogance, he says. His Canine Allegory Series (1997) also reflects his belief in dogs as talismans. “I see the dog as a totem animal of humans, a parallel self, if you will, who has the goods on us. Think about the dog’s unconditional love, trust, vulnerability, and the therapy and healing they offer. Look into their eyes and they are either saying ‘I love you’ or ‘What the hell are you doing?’”

He displayed three of the dogs—two German Shepherds and a Malinois—at the 2015 Vietnam Dog Handler Association reunion in Nashville. The veteran dogmen were drawn to them, Mellick says. “The dogs were a big hit, with the guys taking selfies with them, and many, many conversations took place around them. Men were wiping tears away. They released many emotions that had been locked up.” Their reactions aren’t hard to understand. Military dog-team jobs have always been dangerous: detecting explosives, scouting the enemy and taking part in search-and-rescue missions. Many don’t survive, and those who do tend to be deeply affected by the experience.

Mellick feels strongly about our nation’s ambivalent response to the men and women who serve in the military. As he told an interviewer earlier this year, “It’s one thing to be against war, but things really go south when people turn against the soldiers who serve. Young people today put themselves in harm’s way not because they were drafted but because they’ve volunteered. And because there is no draft, many of us don’t see the cost and we don’t feel the pain.”

In Wounded Warrior Dogs, Mellick makes us look straight at things we’d probably prefer to avert our eyes from—he makes us feel the pain and see the cost, both to the war dogs and their battlefield partners.

Wounded Warrior Dogs:
Celebrating America’s K-9 Heroes
Canton Museum of Art Through July 17
cantonart.org

This exhibit has no connection to or association with the Wounded Warrior Project charity.

Wellness: Recipes
Dog Food Recipes: Easy Crockpot Chicken & Brown Rice
A family favorite, served to three generations of dogs

Base
1 cup brown rice
2 cups water

Vegetables
1/2 lb. green beans, broken into segments
1 medium sweet potato, raw, cut into medium-sized chunks (leave skin on)
3 carrots, sliced into about 1" thick rounds

Protein
2 boneless chicken breasts (with or without skin) or 4 to 6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs

Directions
1. Put all ingredients into the crockpot in the order given (layer, don’t mix).
2. Cook on low for about 8 hours, on high for about 5 hours.
3. When done, stir, breaking up the chicken into small pieces. Everything will be quite soft.
4. Let cool and serve; can be used with a quality kibble or by itself, in a serving size appropriate for your dog’s weight and activity level.
Refrigerate unused portion; keeps up to three days.

Substitutions are allowed! For vegetables, try broccoli florets, zucchini, spinach or any of several types of squash. For the protein source, beef cubes, turkey or lamb also work. Use organic ingredients if possible.

For additional recipes for homemade dog food, check out these that feature meat and fish by Barbara Laino.

P.S. A reader let us know that she put the recipe into a nutritional analysis site and using 1 lb boneless skinless thighs, it comes out at 200 calories per 1 cup. Hope this helps in determining how much your dog needs.

Culture: DogPatch
Dogs Are on Our Side

We may think our dog wIll take a treat from any hand that offers it, but a new study by a team of Japanese researchers suggests that may not be the case. Primates engage in something called “social eavesdropping”— essentially, making judgments about others based on interactions that don’t directly affect their own interests. This study tested dogs’ ability to do the same by setting up situations in which the dogs’ owners asked for help in opening a box and were assisted (helper scenario), rejected (non-helper scenario), or ignored (control scenario) as the dogs looked on. After these interchanges, when the dogs were offered treats, they took them randomly from Helper and Control “strangers” but were biased against non-helpers. According to Kazuo Fujita, professor of comparative cognition at Kyoto university and one of the study’s authors, the ability to socially and emotionally evaluate others “is one of the key factors in building a highly collaborative society.” So, another step in the process of understanding how Canis lupus became familiaris: like humans, dogs are able to pick up clues about who to trust and who to avoid.

27_1653
Cover Girl: Abby
The Bark's Spring 2015 issue

This seven-year-old German Wirehaired Pointer lives in Southern California at Skye Valley Ranch, near the Mexican border. Although she loves to run—she’s reported to be the fastest of the ranch’s dogs—her favorite activity seems to be taking in the sights from the ranch tractor’s passenger seat. At the end of the day, she can be found inside, curled up on her bed near a warm fire.

According to her family, Abby didn’t have a chance to do much hunting when she was young, but did develop a fondness for fishing. The ranch has a lake, and she’ll patiently stand for hours in its shallows, intently focused on the perch swimming around her legs.

We were particularly taken with this account from Abby’s person: “Abby became part of our family while I was pregnant with our only child, Katie, and has always been more of a protector or guardian than playmate. From early on, her sense of duty was evident. One day, when Kate was a toddler, Abby found a small rattlesnake in the grass and started barking and growling and biting it and throwing it up into the air. She was bitten and had some swelling on her lip, but got the vaccine and recovered just fine in a couple of hours. We were not expecting such a sense of duty from a Pointer.”

Cover photographer Kaylee Greer is known for her love of vibrant color and her love for dogs; in addition to her commissioned work, she volunteers her talents, providing photos that help shelter and rescue dogs—both in the U.S. and in other countries—get noticed and adopted. Greer, who says she’s fueled by dogs’ purity, joy and unrelenting happiness, is scheduled to teach a series of workshops this spring.

 dogbreathphoto.com

Wellness: Healthy Living
Medical Cannabis: Is it good for our dogs?
Medical marijuana shows promise for ailing companion animals.

A Bulldog who spent two years either lying down or throwing up plays like a puppy thanks to a daily dose of medical marijuana. A Boxer’s skin cancer begins to disappear following topical applications of cannabis oil. A 12-year-old Lab mix diagnosed with liver and lung cancer regains his appetite and becomes more himself after his owner gives him a cannabis tincture purchased from a licensed medical marijuana dispensary.

These stories offer hope to those of us who live with aging and/or infirm dogs, hope that we can improve the quality of their lives and perhaps even extend them.

Even more hopeful is the fact that these aren’t isolated incidents, but rather, three in an ever-increasing narrative of companion animals and cannabis- assisted healing. Yet, veterinarians played little to no official role in them. Why? Because Cannabis sativa (aka marijuana, grass, pot, hash, ganja, et al.)— a plant cultivated for literally thousands of years for its seeds, fibers and medicinal value—is a federally designated Schedule 1 controlled substance, a “drug with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”

So, even if vets believe that medical marijuana could or would relieve a dog’s pain, nausea or seizures, their hands are tied, including in the 23 states and the District of Columbia where cannabis is legal for human medical use. Physicians in those states are exempt from prosecution, but veterinarians don’t have the same protection. Prescribing, or even recommending, cannabis for medicinal use exposes them to the loss of their license to practice.

It’s a difficult place for a vet to find him- or herself: to have a remedy that has been shown to have very real benefits but not be able to use it, or even mention it, without career-ending consequences. Nonetheless, some have put their livelihoods at risk by challenging that prohibition, usually for the same reasons given by the late Doug Kramer, DVM, of Chatsworth, Calif., in a 2013 interview with Julia Szabo: compassion, and to prevent owners from accidentally overdosing their animals in well-intentioned efforts to relieve their pain.

And that’s part of the veterinary quandary. Medical marijuana has been described as the new “dot.com” boom, fueled by a growing body of research that seems to be validating cannabis’s beneficial effects for people. When people are helped by a particular treatment, they tend to want to share it with their ailing companion animals.

With medical marijuana, they’re doing this in increasing numbers, acting on the belief that if it works for them, it can also work for their dog or cat … or horse, for that matter. In doing so, they’re not necessarily curing incurable conditions but rather, are helping their animals enjoy daily life with better appetite and less pain until age or disease ultimately catches up.

The Backstory

The plant world has given us some of our oldest and most trusted—and, it’s true, sometimes abused—remedies. Pain relievers like codeine and morphine (poppy); colchicine, an antitumor drug (autumn crocus); the cardiac drug digitalin (purple foxglove); antimalarial quinine (quinine tree); and salicin, the chemical precursor to aspirin (white willow). The list is long.

When that plant has a cultural backstory like marijuana’s, however— “demon weed” in the ’50s, counterculture toke of choice in the ’60s, DEA Schedule 1 drug in the ’70s and onward —empirical evidence is harder to come by. Many barriers are placed in the path of those who want to find answers to questions about marijuana’s potential healing powers. Consequently, there’s a scarcity of rigorous research on the topic, particularly for veterinary application.

Determining whether or not to bring medical marijuana into general and legal use nationwide for humans and animals alike—and how to do it in a way that maximizes its benefits and minimizes its risks—requires this research. Stories, no matter how compelling and promising, are not science, and anecdotal evidence isn’t evidence in the scientific sense. Rather, hypotheses need to be tested in randomized, placebo-controlled studies, the results analyzed and conclusions drawn. The results are then retested and found to be replicable (or not) by others.

Until relatively recently, claims for cannabis’s medicinal values haven’t been supported in this way. As Hampton Sides notes in “High Science,” the June 2015 National Geographic cover story, “for nearly 70 years, the plant went into hiding, and medical research largely stopped … In America, most people expanding knowledge about cannabis were, by definition, criminals.”

The Science

Now for the more technical aspects of the topic, greatly simplified and synthesized.

The first published research related to cannabis and companion animals appeared in 1899 in the British Medical Journal. Written by English physician and pharmacologist Walter E. Dixon, the article included Dixon’s observations on dogs’ response to cannabis. However, it would be almost 100 years before we understood where the response originated: in the endocannabinoid system (ECS).

All vertebrates, from sea squirts to humans, have an endocannabinoid system, which scientists estimate evolved more than 600 million years ago. This ancient system, unknown until the late 20th century, is named for the botanical that most dramatically affects it, Cannabis sativa. Cannabinoids are the ECS’s messengers. The system’s purpose is to maintain internal balance— to “Relax, Eat, Sleep, Forget and Protect.”

Marijuana, a complex botanical with more than 400 known natural compounds, contains at least 64 phytocannabinoids (plant-based cannabinoids). The two produced in greatest abundance are cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

How do they work? According to the National Cancer Society, cannabinoids “activate specific receptors found throughout the body to produce pharmacologic effects, particularly in the central nervous system and the immune system.” The effects depend on the receptors to which they bind.

Robert J. Silver, DVM and veterinary herbalist of Boulder, Colo., provides another way to look at it. “Receptors are like locks, and cannabinoids are like keys. They fit together perfectly. Once the cannabinoid connects to the receptor and ‘turns that lock,’ a series of actions in the cell membrane occur; these actions are responsible for some of the cannabinoid’s effects.”

In his forthcoming book, Medical Marijuana and Your Pet, Dr. Silver notes that the ECS is unique in the world of neurotransmitters. Instead of releasing signals across a synapse (gap) in a forward direction, “the body’s naturally occurring endocannabinoids travel backward from the post- to the presynaptic nerve cell, inhibiting its ability to fire a signal. This is one way the ECS helps modulate and influence the nervous system.”

Research has revealed two distinct cannabinoid receptors, CB1 and CB2. As in other vertebrates, canine CB1 receptors are primarily found in the brain, but also appear in dogs’ salivary glands and hair follicles, while CB2 receptors are localized in canine skin, immune system, peripheral nervous system and some organs, such as the liver and kidneys.

Of the currently known cannabinoids, only one—THC—provokes a “mind-bending” response. CBD, on the other hand, has several well-documented biological effects, including antianxiety, anticonvulsive, antinausea, anti-inf lammatory and antitumor properties.

Terpenoids, components that give plants their distinctive odors, also play a role, helping cannabis cross the bloodbrain barrier and work synergistically. Ethan B. Russo, MD, associated with GW Pharmaceuticals in the UK, calls this the “entourage effect.” In an article in the British Journal of Pharmacology, Russo notes that terpenoids may make a meaningful contribution to cannabisbased medicinal extracts “with respect to treatment of pain, inf lammation, depression, anxiety, addiction, epilepsy, cancer, fungal and bacterial infections (including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus [MRSA]).” The entourage effect also suggests that in general, the whole plant, with all of its phytocannabinoids, is likely to be most effective for medicinal purposes.

Those who choose to treat their companion animals with medical marijuana generally give it to them in one of two ways: as an oil or as an edible —a food item made with marijuana or infused with its oil. While edibles intended for human consumption usually contain THC, those for dogs and cats more commonly use CBD from industrial hemp, strains of cannabis cultivated for non-drug use, which has almost no THC.

In 1996, California became the first state in the nation to legalize medical marijuana. It now has the largest legal medical marijuana market in the U.S. —not to mention an almost clichéd historical relationship with the herb— so it’s no surprise that many who are pushing the boundaries of its use with companion animals are based there.

Constance Finley, founder of Constance Pure Botanical Extracts (a Northern California legal medical cannabis collective) became involved in cannabis use with dogs when her 10-year-old service dog was diagnosed with hemangiosarcoma and given six weeks to six months to live.

Finley had been using cannabis oil herself to treat the effects of a debilitating autoimmune disease that began when she was in her mid-40s. The prescription medication she took almost killed her, she says, an experience that inspired her to set aside her long-held bias against marijuana and give it a try. The oil provided both pain- and symptom relief, and Finley went on to study cannabis cultivation and the complicated laws around its use. She eventually developed proprietary blends of highly concentrated oils from multiple strains of cannabis, extracted with organic, food-grade solvents.

So, when her much-loved dog was struggling with cancer, she says she dithered, then began giving the dog small amounts of cannabis oil, wiping it on her gums. Within days, the dog started to move around normally and eat; after three weeks of treatment with the oil, her vet could find no signs of the cancer. Unfortunately, she didn’t completely understand how cannabis worked; she figured her dog was cured and stopped using the oil. Within six months, the cancer was back, and ultimately it claimed her dog’s life.

However, the experience made her a believer in its value for companion animals. While to date, there’s been no dog-specific research on its medical use, Finley is confident that cannabis oil has a place in the veterinary toolbox.

In her work with human clients, Finley says she has yet to see a conflict between conventional medications and cannabis, although anyone using it with dogs needs to be aware of the dog’s entire situation. It’s critically important, she says, that the dose be correctly titrated so the dog’s system isn’t hit with too much THC too quickly. She also notes that the effectiveness of an individual dog’s endocannabinoid system, not the dog’s weight, determines the dose. To establish the correct dose, it’s necessary to work with and observe the dog.

A dosage protocol for dogs is one of the areas in need of study and standardization. In the mid-1970s, researchers found that dogs have a high concentration of CB1 endocannabinoid receptors in their hindbrain and medulla as well as other areas of the brain. This suggests that, in terms of compounds that include THC, dogs require less to get the desired effect. (One of the diagnostic signs of THC overdose is something called “static ataxia,” first described in the 19th century and unique to dogs. Dogs in this condition rock rigidly back and forth and drool, their muscles tense up, and their pupils dilate.) According to Dr. Silver, when it comes to dogs and medical marijuana, “The ratio of brain weight—and by extension, receptors— to body weight is not linear.”

Finley also observes that there are at least two myths about medical marijuana that need to be dispelled. First, that CBD is good and THC is bad; each has its uses, but for cancer in particular, she says, THC is the workhorse. Second, that hemp and cannabis are the same; they are different varieties or sub-species, and while CBD can be refined from hemp, she feels that cannabis provides oil that is more easily used by the body.

In Oakland, Calif., Auntie Dolores has been making cannabis-infused edibles for California’s medical marijuana users since 2008. It recently launched Treatibles, a new, locally manufactured product for dogs and cats. The active ingredients are CBD, CBN (cannabinol) and CBG (cannabigerol) distilled from European industrial hemp, which, founder and CEO Julianna Carella notes, is “non-toxic, 100 percent safe and non-psychoactive. Even dogs who do not have health problems can use the product as a preventive measure.”

Each bag of Treatibles, about 40 pieces, contains 54.6 mg of CBD; each t reat contains about 1 mg. Carella says that the company guarantees 40 mg per bag, but often the consumer gets a bit more. “We feel that all products purporting the health benefits of CBD should have at least enough of the material in the product to warrant the price, as well as to provide a medicinal dose. Even so, dogs are more sensitive to cannabinoids and generally need less than humans.”

Carella says that she was inspired to develop edibles for companion animals by cannabinoid science and research into the endocannabinoid system as it relates to all animals. Like others in the field, she is dismayed by cannabis’s current federal legal status. “Unfortunately, research on cannabinoids and animals is delayed due to the status of cannabis and the Controlled Substance Act, which has disallowed research into its medicinal value. CBD has become part of this controversy, even when derived from hemp.”

Initially, Treatibles was sold only through the company’s Treatibles website, but Auntie Dolores has recently been making it available in California medical cannabis dispensaries and local pet retail outlets. Holistic Hound in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the first stores to carry the product. While its name includes the word “treats,” store owner Heidi Hill considers Treatibles to be more closely aligned with supplements— i.e., to have health benefits. She says her customers have given Treatibles an enthusiastic reception, with most reportedly using the edible to alleviate their dogs’ anxiety and, in some cases, pain.

Hill says she gives Treatibles to Pearl, her aging, arthritic Siberian Husky, and has observed an improvement in her appetite and energy level. The quality of its other ingredients—among them, organic, gluten-free oat flour; pumpkin; peanut butter; organic coconut oil and coconut nectar; organic brown rice flour; applesauce; turmeric; and cinnamon— also recommends it, she says.

Change Is Coming

While many have seen positive outcomes, some veterinary professionals worry about people extrapolating from their own experiences with medical cannabis to their dogs’ health problems and giving dogs inappropriate amounts. “Sometimes public sentiment and activity get ahead of the scientific background, and that can be dangerous,” Barry Kellogg, senior veterinary adviser to the Humane Society of the United States, has said.

To date, the American Veterinary Medical Association has not taken an official position on the use of medical marijuana with animals. The American Holistic VMA is the first, and so far only, veterinary organization to officially encourage research into the safety, dosing and uses of cannabis in animals. In 2014, the group released a statement that said in part, “There is a growing body of veterinary evidence that cannabis can reduce pain and nausea in chronically ill or suffering animals, often without the dulling effects of narcotics. This herb may be able to improve the quality of life for many patients, even in the face of life-threatening illnesses.”

Other developments are on the way. In March of this year, Nevada state senator Tick Segerblom (D-District 3) introduced Senate Bill 372, which makes a variety of changes related to medical marijuana in the state. Among its provisions is one that would allow officials to issue medical marijuana cards to companion animals whose owners are Nevada residents and whose vet is willing to certify that the animal has an illness that might be helped by marijuana (the illness does not need to be fatal).

California is also in the process of creating a structured regulatory system. In the June 4, 2015, edition of the Sacramento Bee, reporter Jeremy White summarized Assembly Bill 266: “[It] would create what’s called a dual-licensure system, with cannabis entrepreneurs needing to secure permits both from local authorities and from one of a few state agencies. The Department of Public Health would oversee testing, the Department of Food and Agriculture would deal with cultivation and the Board of Equalization would handle sales and transportation—all under the auspices of a new Governor’s Office of Marijuana Regulation.”

According to Constance Finley, the fact that the marijuana industry is unregulated has been part of the problem regarding access. But next year may be the tipping point. If California’s AB 266 is passed and the marijuana industry comes out of the shadows into effective regulation, particularly in terms of verifiable cannabinoid content and freedom from contaminants, the rest of the nation could follow. The state’s size, market potential, and trailblazing environmental and technology industries have historically inf luenced trends nationwide, and that dynamic is likely to drive the discussion in this case as well.

Veterinary professionals are generally in agreement that more study is needed. In a 2013 interview with R. Scott Nolen, Dawn Boothe, DVM and director of the Clinical Pharmacology Laboratory at Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, commented: “Veterinarians do need to be part of the dialogue. I can see a welldesigned, controlled clinical trial looking at the use of marijuana to treat cancer pain in animals. That would be a wonderful translational study, with relevance to both pets and their people.” (In translational research, laboratory science and clinical medicine combine their efforts to develop new treatments and bring them to market.)

Narda G. Robinson, DVM, director of Colorado State University’s Center for Comparative and Integrative Pain Medicine, agrees. In an email exchange, Dr. Robinson said, “There is a big gap that needs to be addressed between those who are already using hemp products and finding value for their animal and science-based practitioners who want to make sure that their patients are receiving safe and effective treatment. Research will help bridge that gap.”

Next Steps

Clearly, veterinarians—our partners in keeping our animals healthy—need a voice in this debate. While interested in the herb’s potential, many are leery about trying it, not only because of the legal consequences but also, because there’s so little evidence-based information. On the other hand, dog owners who have found it useful for themselves feel that not including it in the vet-med repertoire is a missed opportunity.

Although the tide is slowly turning in its favor, the debate about the utility of medical marijuana and its related components for both people and their pets is often mired in personal bias and opinion. Regardless of what position we take, it would seem that the best way to come to a resolution is to focus on the science. Controlled studies that determine cannabis’s therapeutic and toxic ranges in veterinary use and standardization of THC and/or CBD content have the potential to make a potent natural ally legally and safely available to our four-legged companions.

In transforming anecdote to evidence, we can move from what we think, what we believe and what we imagine to what we actually know. That would be a very good thing for us and for our co-pilots as well.

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