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Here's what to do if your dog ingests cannabis

ladrador dog laying down while a person in scrubs gives them a vaccine
Stock photo: A labrador getting a vaccine.

Rochester-area veterinarians are reporting a sharp rise in cannabis poisonings among dogs that are eating products containing the drug, usually in the form of edibles.

"Five or 10 years ago, we might see one or two dogs that ingested marijuana or THC a week," said Dr. Simon Kirk. "Now, we would see, easily, three or four cases a week; sometimes three or four cases in a day."

Kirk, who is the medical director at Veterinary Specialists and Emergency Services in Brighton, isn't surprised at the surge of these cases since New York state legalized cannabis for medical use in 2016 and for recreational use in 2021.

"Like any medication or substance, once it becomes more available, then it's more available to pets, and dogs like to chew on things," he said.

The local numbers also mirror a national trend, according to data from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The ASPA's poison control center saw a 300% increase in calls related to potential cannabis ingestion over five years. There were 6,939 such calls made to the hotline in 2022.

Kirk is not overly alarmed by the fact that more dogs are coming into contact with cannabis. He is far more concerned that some of the cannabis-laced products they may eat could also contain grapes, raisins, chocolate or xylitol, which can be lethal to dogs.

"Those are actually more toxic than THC (the psychoactive component of cannabis)," Kirk said.

He did note that some medicinal cannabis products and products with higher concentrations of THC, such as cannabis butter, are also concerning.

Most dogs, he said, make a full recovery from cannabis toxicity and fatalities from exposure to the drug are exceedingly rare. The severity of the toxicity varies depending on the animal's, age, health, size, and how much THC was in whatever they ate.

Symptoms of cannabis intoxication in dogs include depression, vomiting, urinary incontinence, tremor, poor coordination, tremor, stupor, and low heart rate.

Treatment for THC poisoning will vary depending on the severity of the ingestion, according to Dr. Tina Wismer, DVM, Senior Director of the ASPCA's poison control center.

"Pets that are only mildly intoxicated, meaning they can still walk and respond, can be monitored at home," she said. " Pets that cannot stand or that are comatose will need veterinary intervention."

A dog that is hospitalized for cannabis toxicity will typically get IV fluids for hydration and medicine to ease muscle tremors. A soybean oil-based medication, Intralipid, is administered through an IV. The fatty fluid binds to the THC so the dog can excrete it.

Before New York state legalized cannabis, Kirk said dog owners were sometimes wary of admitting that their pet may have ingested it. Now, he said, they are more likely to be open about it, which is best for the person, their dog, and the veterinary staff.

"We are all medical professionals; everything's confidential," Kirk said. "So honesty makes our lives a lot easier and frequently decreases the bill because we don't have to do a bunch of tests to try to figure something out."

Accessing emergency care for pets is not always easy, due to ongoing staff shortages in veterinary medicine. The VSES hospital in Brighton is closedbetween 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., so people may have to travel to Buffalo or Syracuse if their pet is urgently ill during the overnight hours.

VSES says trained staff are available by phone at (585) 424-1277 around the clock to help pet owners with concerns and to direct them to other resources if needed.

The ASPCA's poison control center hotline at (888) 426-4435 is also open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Callers are connected with a veterinary staff member who may guide them through an at-home treatment plan if that is indicated.

But the best way to protect pets from cannabis consumption is to securely store the products well out of their reach.

"It's much safer to put it up high and locked away in a cabinet and then you won't have anything to worry about," Kirk said.

Beth Adams joined WXXI as host of Morning Edition in 2012 after a more than two-decade radio career. She was the longtime host of the WHAM Morning News in Rochester. Her career also took her from radio stations in Elmira, New York, to Miami, Florida.