The owner "had called all her friends, and at first, they thought it was funny," says Laura Higgins, an emergency veterinarian at Aspen Meadow Veterinary Specialists in Longmont. "They thought the dog would be fine, even though chocolate is toxic for dogs -- that's another issue. But by the time the dog came to me, she was comatose, nearly dead."
Fortunately, the dog survived. But according to Higgins, this incident was hardly unique. She estimates that Aspen Meadow sees cases of cannabis ingestion by pets an average of once a month, and she thinks that rate may increase as medical marijuana becomes more prevalent in Colorado.
Weed toxicity most recently made headlines after a ten-month-old baby had to be hospitalized after eating some of her parents' pot edibles. But pets were left out of the equation until Higgins wrote an essay about the dangers of animals eating marijuana goods.
The cases Higgins has handled to date "have been purely accidental -- or at least no one has admitted any intended marijuana intoxications," she says. "I guess people don't want to share with their dogs."
After a laugh, she adds, "I suppose some goofballs might think it's funny. But honestly, I doubt that could happen."
A more serious problem, in Higgins' view, are people who don't immediately share the true reasons for pets' illness with medical personnel.
"We had a case where we induced vomiting in a pet, because its problems had been a really recent onset, and the dog threw up a lot of marijuana -- and the owner insisted that they honestly had no idea where it came from," she recalls. "I suppose there are some scenarios where that might happen, like maybe the dog finding some marijuana that had been lost in a park or something. But sometimes when they tell us they don't know, I think that's not true, and they're just afraid of getting in trouble."
Clients shouldn't worry about the last situation, she stresses.
"It's okay to admit it if you suspect that's what happened," she says. "There are some symptoms that may clue us in, and when we ask the owners, we may be able to draw it out. But sometimes we can't, and that just makes it harder to treat their pets. And we don't care about whether people use marijuana. If you want to tell me you have a license and you don't, that's fine. Whatever makes you comfortable. Because unless we suspect abuse, like intentionally feeding them this, we're under no obligation with the law and don't care what people do on their own time. We just want to take care of the animals the best way we can. So blame it on your roommate or your neighbor. Whatever it takes for you to say, 'I think my dog got into marijuana.'"
Dogs are the likeliest animals to do so. Although many cats like to chew on the leaves, Higgins hasn't treated any that became ill after gnawing marijuana plants from home grows.
As for the effects on dogs, she says, "The biggest things would be respiratory and cardiac issues and neurologic depression -- basically just slowing all functions down. Respiratory function can become so compromised that the dogs aren't breathing enough, and they would need to be put on a ventilator to support their breathing until they come around.
"We may also administer IV fluids to support their cardiovascular system, as well as trying to flush any toxins from their system. If they're alert when they come in, and we know what's going on, we may try to induce vomiting and trying to get rid of anything that may be in their stomach. And if they're having any heart-rate problems, we may monitor them with an EKG or treat them with medication to support their heart. And if they're vomiting on their own and have already emptied what they can, but the toxins have already been absorbed, we may give them something to treat the nausea and prevent them from becoming dehydrated."
The main symptoms pet owners are likely to see in cases of marijuana toxicity "are stumbling, loss of urinary control and vomiting -- and they can be pretty miserable," she points out. "We have no way of knowing what a dog senses in terms of how they're feeling mentally, but they come in pretty miserable. They don't appear to feel any sort of euphoria. It's all pretty much nausea and stumbling and an inability to get hold of themselves. They get pretty sick."
To date, none of the dogs treated for marijuana toxicity at Aspen Meadow have died, largely because the emergency personnel have been able to treat them in time. All of them have recovered well, Higgins says.
Still, the possibility of a fatality remains -- and perhaps even grows.