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Protecting pets from exposure to marijuana

With the possibility of marijuana being legalized in Maryland, pet owners need to be aware of the problems that exposure to this substance can cause for their companion animals.

According to Dr. Ahna Brutlag, associate director of veterinary services of the Pet Poison Helpline, "The trend we've seen in recent years involving pets and marijuana is significant. Of all illicit drugs, marijuana has always been responsible for the most calls to the Pet Poison Helpline, but this recent increase is the sharpest we have ever seen."

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Over a 5 year period, from 2005 to 2010, the Pet Poison Helpline experienced a 200 percent increase in the number of cases of pets that ingested marijuana.

A veterinary study from Colorado that was published by the Journal of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care reported a four-fold increase in the number of dogs treated for marijuana intoxication between 2005 and 2010, after medical marijuana was legalized in that state.

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Pet deaths from marijuana poisoning are rare, but veterinary intervention may be needed for pets to successfully recover, according to the Pet Poison Helpline.

The deaths of two small dogs that ingested baked goods made with highly concentrated medical-grade marijuana butter was reported in a Colorado study.

Pets can be poisoned by pot by inhaling the smoke, ingesting dried plant matter, and eating foods laced with marijuana — like baked goods or butter — or products containing hashish. Dogs — most commonly — eat dried plants directly from an owner's stash or devour foods containing marijuana.

Add chocolate to those food items and the risk for very serious and possibly deadly poisoning increases.

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The Pet Poison Helpline lists the following symptoms of marijuana poisoning in dogs and cats: "glassy-eyes, stumbling/incoordination, dilated pupils, vomiting, coma, and in about 25 percent of dogs, agitation and excitement. Urinary incontinence or urine dribbling is also very common, especially in dogs. Serious effects include changes in heart rate, coma, tremors, and seizures. The signs typically begin 30 to 60 minutes after ingestion, or sooner if inhaled."

The treatment for marijuana poisoning includes IV fluids, medications to control vomiting, oxygen, monitoring blood pressure, regulating the pet's temperature, and in severe cases, ventilator/respirator support.

These treatments can be complicated and expensive, but owners should never attempt to induce vomiting or provide home treatment without first consulting a veterinarian or the Pet Poison Help Line. It may take 18 to 36 hours for pets to recover from treatment.

Owners should not rely on the results of over-the-counter human urine drug screening tests to diagnose dogs for marijuana exposure because the success rate is highly inconsistent and false negatives do occur, according to the Pet Poison Helpline.

Pet owners — likely to be embarrassed — should never feel guilty about reporting possible marijuana poisoning to veterinarians because vets are not required by law to notify law enforcement officials.

Vets will need to know what the pet was exposed to so they can quickly identify the toxin and provide treatment in a timely manner.

To prevent such catastrophes, pot-using pet owners should do the following:

• Always keep any potentially toxic substances — including marijuana and marijuana-laced food items — inaccessible to children and pets.

• Do not attempt to alleviate a pet's pain issues — like arthritis or hip dysplasia — with marijuana, particularly medical-grade. Instead, consult with your vet for more appropriate treatment options.

• In case of a marijuana exposure, immediately call your vet or the Pet Poison Helpline at 1-800-213-6680 and have a credit card with you to cover the $39 — per case — consultation fee.

• The Pet Poison Helpline also has an iPhone application called Pet Poison Help which includes over 200 poisons — with photos — dangerous to cats and dogs and is available on iTunes for $1.99.

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