‘Out of reach, out of sight’: How to protect pets from cannabis poisoning
The Virginia Poison Center reported a 286% increase in cases of pet exposure to cannabis from 2018 to 2022.
The Pet Poison Helpline reported an increase nationwide and in Virginia of calls concerning cannabis poisoning in household pets.
“We’ve had a really significant increase on the number of calls that we’ve had of exposures over the last two or three years, especially,” said Dr. Renee Schmid.
Schmid is a senior veterinary toxicologist and manager of veterinary medicine and professional services for the national Pet Poison Helpline. The 24-hour helpline is available for pet owners and veterinarians, and charges an $85 help fee. The helpline and Virginia Poison Center share some pet case statistics, according to Schmid.
Cannabis is ranked as the No. 9 toxin for pets nationwide, according to the Pet Poison Helpline website. The Pet Poison Helpline experienced a 735% increase in nationwide THC-related calls from 2018 to 2022, Schmid stated in a follow-up email. THC is the compound in cannabis which creates a “high” for the user.
Cannabis intoxication in pets presents in a variety of ways, Schmid said. Pets can become lethargic, develop symptoms of hypothermia, low blood pressure or have a significantly low heart rate, according to Schmid. However, in some cases pets can become agitated rather than lethargic.
Most animals do not die from cannabis intoxication, but they are more sensitive to THC than humans, according to Schmid. A lethal dose for pets is generally considered to be “a little over 6 grams per pound,” Schmid said.
“That's a pretty high amount that they would have to be exposed to,” Schmid said. “They'd have to get into a really large amount of marijuana itself or a large number of edibles.”
However, “a really small amount can be quite problematic” for pets, according to Schmid.
Veterinarians treat pets for cannabis exposure by giving the animals intravenous fluids and monitoring their heart rate and blood pressure for several hours. Pet owners need to keep cannabis products out of reach of their pets and smoke in areas where pets are not present, according to Schmid.
“They’ll smell it; they’ll be inquisitive about it,” Schmid said. “Animals, they explore with their mouths, and so it's very normal for them to put something new in their mouth, taste and see what it’s like.”
Dr. S. Rutherford Rose is the director of the Virginia Poison Center at VCU Health.
“In general, when it comes to making sure that their pets do not accidentally consume cannabis products it is much the same as with small children," Rose wrote in an email. "Never leave edibles lying around on counter tops or tables in the home.”
The Virginia Poison Center reported an overall 286% increase in cases of pet exposure to cannabis from 2018 to 2022, according to Schmid. There was a 90.5% increase from calls made in 2021 to 2022. The helpline does not disclose raw case numbers, just percentages, because they are a privately owned company, Schmid said.
The difference between the overall national increase and Virginia increase is because cannabis is also sold for recreational use in other states, according to Schmid. The maximum THC amount allowed by many states is higher than Virginia’s allotted 10 milligrams per dose in its medical marijuana program.
“Some states just skyrocketed with the number of call differences that they have,” Schmid said.
The Virginia General Assembly decriminalized cannabis in 2021, which allowed adults aged 21 and older to possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana and legally grow up to four plants in their home. The legislature earlier approved a medical marijuana program, but has failed to pass legislation to create a recreational market.
The medical marijuana market continues to grow in Virginia, and dispensaries sell edible products such as THC-infused fruit-flavored gummies and chocolates. The increase in calls to pet poison control centers is due to more availability of legal products and less stigma around calling for help, Schmid said.
“Instead of them being hesitant to call and seek care for their pet, they're more open to doing that,” Schmid said.
Legal cannabis sellers have made their own efforts to prevent accidental poisonings of pets and children, according to Nathaniel Blakey, the head of edible production at RVA Cannabis Co.
RVA Cannabis Co., located in Chesterfield County, packages cannabis products in childproof and pet proof packaging, according to Blakey. Certain CBD products are made for pets, but pets should never be given products containing THC, Blakey said.
“CBD products like treats and tinctures are great for animals in moderation for those with stress or joint issues. But even these CBD products should be stored carefully,” Blakey stated in an email. “We strongly recommended to keep bagged treats out of reach.”
“People should have easy access to properly dosed edibles and be educated on what a legit product looks like,” Blakey stated. “Consumers should also be educated on the fact that CBD will always be more responsible for more medicinal help and that THC is more recreational.”
If pet owners think their pet has consumed cannabis products and needs medical attention, they can call a local emergency veterinary clinic or the Virginia Poison Center hotline at 800-222-1222.
Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.