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Marijuana in Colorado: Should it be used to treat pets?

Dr, Robin Downing says marijuana's effect on pets needs to be studied.
Dr, Robin Downing says marijuana's effect on pets needs to be studied.
John Davidson

As the subject of medical marijuana treatment for pets is bandied about in the veterinary community, Dr. Robin Downing comes down squarely on the side of orthodoxy. She agrees with the American Veterinary Medical Association ( that studies are needed before pot therapy is practiced.

Downing, a Windsor veterinarian who is one of the top animal pain management specialists in the country, isn't afraid to swim aganist the tide of veterinary dogma. She has little patience for vets who settle for euthanasia and don't go the limit for animals in their final stages of life. But where pot is concerned, she goes with the flow.

"There's more we don't know about this therapy than we do know," she explained recently. "As of this time, marijuana therapy for animals is untried, unproven, unregulated medicine." Downing says. "Any time you use untested therapy, there are increased risks. We have good (pain) tools already."

Downing doesn't rule out eventual use of pot therapy, but sees too many troubling knowledge gaps to support it today.

"We know dogs and cats have cannabinoid (pot substance) receptors. There is a basis that pot can play a role for pets," she says. "But we don't really know at this time how we get to this receptor in pets. We have no knowledge of how pot metabolizes in them, how many milligrams of pot we need to treat them, what form we should administer it in and how long it stays in the body. Are we going to create new problems to solve?"

And there is a difference between dog and cats, she says. "Lots of medications we use for dogs can't be used in cats. It will kill them."

Downing says that liability is another issue that her colleagues need to take very seriously. While physicians in states where medical marijuana is sanctioned can recommend the drug to patients, such protections don’t apply to veterinarians.

"Without any legal guidance for medical marijuana (in states in which it is legal), and with federal laws in place making all marijuana illegal, veterinarians will incur all the legal liabilities associated with recommending it for patients" she says..

Still, some vets - Downing puts it at "a handful" - have come down in favor of marijuana as an alternative to watching animals wasting away in pain. It's hard to pin down just how many. Prominent among them was the late Los Angeles veterinarian Doug Kramer, who died of cancer in August.

Kramer developed a special tincture for dogs and cats made with marijuana called Canine Companion, designed to treat animals for pain, inflammation and end-of-life health issues. "I grew tired of euthanizing pets when I wasn't doing everything I could to make their lives better," he told The Associated Press ( But when AP reached out to other veterinarians, they declined to speak on the record. Kramer himself said research on pot therapy was still needed.

Marijuana treatment has also found favor is other segments of the animal care world, including holistic practitioners.

Among the supporters is Darlene Arden, a certified animal behavior consultant as well as a noted author, lecturer and journalist.

"The AVMA hasn't endorsed it, saying it needs to be studied. But why should animals suffer in the meantime? People need to stop thinking about this. ... It does have the power to do good."

Arden said pet owners should talk to their veterinarians privately about the treatment. "I've been to a lot of veterinary conferences. A lot of them are very quietly doing it. The difference in animals is amazing," she added."

Arden downplayed possible harmful effects of marijuana in pets as long as owners are responsible about storing it.

However the debate goes, one thing appears likely: The wait for medical research on animal marijuana therapy could be a long one.

Leaders at the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biological Sciences at Colorado State University say such research is not contemplated at CSU, one of the top veterinary schools in the country. And they didn't know of any veterinary school in the country doing it.

Downing said that the AVMA, though calling for studies, is not likely to do it because its role is making policy, not research..

Meanwhile, Dr. Duncan Lascelles, a professor of surgery and pain management at North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine, told the website Mother Nature Network ( that research could take a decade to ensure such a medication will be effective and free of side effects.

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