To close out our series, I am going to treat you to a day in the life of an ER veterinarian treating pets for THC ingestion! I am also going to go over what a pet will look like after exposure, and how to best support them after accidental ingestion.

I know it may be hard to believe with my stellar young looks and glowing skin, but early in my career, THC was not a legal substance, so clients were leery to fess-up to exposures or ingestions. I was often told by a client “absolutely not” it wasn’t possible, meanwhile a young teenager pulls down their cap and slinks into the chair while I continue to question mom and dad. When I worked in Canada, it was never the client, but maybe the “guy in the basement”, in LA it was “well, we did go for a walk in Venice”. Fast—forward to present day Orange County and it is a little easier to get a history of exposure, which makes treatment and outcomes a little easier to come by!

Cannabis toxicity calls to the ASPCA Poison Control Center nearly doubled between 2017-2020.(Source: LA Times, 9/30/2012)

So, Toxicity is not new to us, but is extremely exacerbated by the availability of highly palatable and highly available edibles over the past 3-4 years. While cannabis use and consumption has increased for humans, we are seeing an increasing rate, as well as increase in severity of toxicity in pets.

What does a “high” pet look like?
The most common signs of ingestion are a sleepy pet, with big pupils, startles easily (jumps at louder sounds), and may or may not be dribbling urine like they have lost control of their bladder. These clinical signs together make for a more recognizable pattern, but each pet and their exposure is different, so signs could be much less or much worse than described including stumbling, seizures and in extreme cases; death.

Why do they get so sick?
The plant contains more than 400 chemicals, but the cannabinoid 8-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the major psychoactive constituent. While dogs CAN get high by inhalation, the most common cause for us to see them is after ingestion of either a “stash” or edibles containing cannabis. In dogs, following ingestion, symptoms typically begin within 20-60 minutes. The toxin is then spread into the body’s tissues, mainly fat, liver, brain, and kidney. If cannabis plant material has been ingested, it can stay in the GI tract and continue to release THC for a fairly long time.

List of clinical signs

  • Depression
  • Dooling excessively
  • Big wide pupils
  • Exaggerated gait (hypermetria)
  • Vomiting
  • Urinary incontinence
  • Tremors
  • Low core body temperature
  • Low heart rate
Higher doses of ingestion
  • Nystagmus (fast twitching of eyes)
  • Agitation
  • Fast breathing
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Trouble standing
  • Wobbly gate
  • Overly excitable
  • Seizures
  • Coma
  • Death (usually by ingestion of more concentrated medical-grade butter)

Can you test my dog for THC?
Sort of…Drug testing can be helpful, but if tested too soon, it can present a false negative and if tested too late, it can also present a false negative. The best way to obtain a diagnosis is a combination of clinical signs with a history of exposure, and sometimes the elimination of the concern for other inciting causes like liver disease.

How can Dr. Brown and Dr. Cooper help?
If you know your pet has access to, ingested or potentially ingested products containing THC, please plan to bring them in immediately. There is a window of time where we can help them vomit up the substance BUT if you wait too long, we cannot safely cause them to vomit, and the duration of treatment will be much longer.
Treatment is mostly supportive, for typically 12-24 hours but the longest I have seen was a few days of care. We give anti-seizure medications to stop seizures and agitation and we give fluids to help flush out the system. Additionally, we give charcoal to help push it through the intestines. The substance can keep getting reabsorbed, so we often have to repeat the dose of charcoal if/when it is safe to administer it.

Is my pooch going to be ok?
As with all toxins, the dose makes the poison. Aside from some Canabutter ingestions, most dogs do well if we can support them through this while the toxin clears the system. Prompt treatment is the key and prevention is even BETTER!

What about the CBD products I give my dogs?
This is a concern of mine – you need to remember that dogs are not small humans and not all products are created equal. When they still contain THC they are very much still a potential hazard to pets. Make sure you are talking with us or your veterinarian about product safety guidelines and that the product you are using is not doing more harm than good.

I continue to strive to inform my clients so that my patients can live happier and healthier lives. If you think your pet has had an accidental ingestion, please contact us OR ASPCA poison control immediately to get seen and treated if necessary!

Dr. Jenna Brown