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Pet Pot: If medical marijuana helps humans, can it also help their pets?

When Jamie Rephann's eight-year-old boxer mix, Tank, started having trouble walking, he took his dog to the vet, where he learned the options were pretty limited. Either Tank could go on expensive pain medication that might destroy his liver, or Rephann could try other, alternative treatments for his pet -- including cannabis. Though the doctor made it clear he wasn't recommending pot, he also didn't shy away from reality. "He said to me, 'If you use it, it will help your dog,'" Rephann recalls. "God forbid we have a medicine that helps without damage to dog's livers and such."

Within days, Rephann says, Tank was up and moving around like old times.

There's nothing in state law expressly prohibiting you from giving your dog cannabis, medical or otherwise. But at the same time, Colorado animal-cruelty laws are vague, and "mistreating" an animal isn't specifically defined. So problems could arise if a veterinarian considered administration of cannabis by a pet's owner mistreatment. Marijuana is a Schedule 1 drug at the federal level; that means the government thinks there's no medicinal value to it, for humans or animals.

Still, though it's not quite legal -- even in states that allow humans to use medical marijuana -- cannabis is increasingly used as an alternative treatment for suffering and dying four-legged members of the family. And that's a trend that's pushing the veterinary community to reconsider a plant that many once thought only made animals sick.

California veterinarian Doug Kramer has become the leading spokesman for using medical cannabis for pets; he insists he isn't some hippie, new-age healer just because he keeps a natural herbal remedy in his mental medicine bag. In fact, Kramer says he isn't a medical marijuana user (or even a recreational user). Instead, his acceptance of cannabis as a veterinary therapy comes from a greater desire to improve care. "I'm not a holistic vet in the true sense of the term," he says. "It's my duty. If there is anything out there that is going to work -- natural, holistic, or some strange therapy we haven't even heard of -- we have the duty to investigate it. I do practice mainly traditional medicine; I just happened to have been the one that put my head on the chopping block in this situation."

His interest in cannabis as an alternative treatment for pets started when some of his clients -- many of whom were medical marijuana patients in California -- started asking about using pot for their pets. When he heard that some owners were using it for their pet's separation anxiety, he had mixed feelings. It wasn't until his own dog, a husky named Nikita, stopped eating toward the end of her life that Kramer saw the benefits of cannabis use firsthand. While pharmaceutical drugs did nothing for the dog, cannabis eased her pain and made her final few months more tolerable.

Since then, Kramer has done his homework and become an expert in the field -- or as much of an expert as you can become with a frustrating lack of direct studies on veterinary use.

"It's well documented in research that has been done: dogs, cats, pigs -- they all have the same endocannabinoids receptors," Kramer explains. "Those are naturally occurring, and they are the same receptors that humans have and the same systems humans have. If animals possess them, too, then why wouldn't cannabis work on animals?"

He points to animal acupuncture, massage and cold-laser therapy as treatments that gained popularity with humans before they were tried with animals -- and they worked.

Page down for the rest of the story. After years of helping humans through severe pain issues and end-of life care, Jessica LeRoux, owner of Colorado's Twirling Hippy Confections, thought it was a no-brainer to use cannabis when her service dog, Thor, began having trouble walking and getting up stairs. The ninety-pound black lab/collie mix was thirteen and clearly nearing the end of his natural life. Since pain meds cost a fortune and could still destroy his liver, LeRoux began giving her dog cannabis butter mixed in with leftover gristle and fat from dinner steaks.

"You make it so awesome they want to eat it," she notes. "This is not something you do for a five-year-old, healthy dog. I basically did the same thing for him as I would for a human hospice patient. It truly extended the quality of his life at that time."

If you want to use cannabis with your pet, finding the right dosage and strains is crucial. Kramer, who has written a book on making tinctures, says high-CBD/low-THC strains tend to work best for dogs with appetite and pain issues, for example. And start out small, he advises: You should start with a dose so low that the pet isn't likely to even feel it, then move up incrementally in small doses until you notice the benefits. As with medical marijuana for humans, there's no magic dosage level for everyone; finding what's right takes time.

Kramer cautions that cannabis isn't a wonder drug that will cure all diseases. It's buying time for your pet, he says. But you could be buying more time that's actually worth living rather than spending thousands on painful poisons like chemotherapy that mean a few extra months of suffering. "Having seen chemotherapy up close, there are very few cases where I've agreed with its use," Kramer says. "It can prolong life with quality, but in those instances, the person spends a lot of money they don't have and the animal is in pain the entire time. It might buy them more time, but that is poor quality time. The animal is suffering."

Over the past three years, Kramer has consulted with hundreds of pet owners whose animals were dying; cannabis made the last few months more tolerable for both the pet and the owner.

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So far, though, the information about cannabis's efficacy is anecdotal, not scientific. "To my knowledge, there has never been a study done in dogs with cancer on the effects of medical marijuana," says Dr. Rod Page, director of the Flint Animal Cancer Center at Colorado State University, who adds that he thinks his school might be willing to consider such a study. "CSU would evaluate and conduct well-organized studies with medical marijuana that answered well-prepared hypotheses about pain management, inappetence or other medical questions and conditions associated with cancer and its treatment," he says. "We currently have a limited number of products to control such signs and problems in companion animals and are well-equipped to conduct clinical studies in these areas."

Some vets would like to see those studies done soon. Dr. Apryl Steele, a veterinarian with Tender Touch Animal Hospital in Denver, says a growing number of vets are intrigued by what they're hearing about cannabis and pets. She's had a few pet owners tell her that they've used medical marijuana for their pets, but more often, she deals with pets that got into their owner's stash and ate enough pot to get sick. Because of that, she explains, she would be wary to suggest cannabis, since there are no trials proving appropriate dosages. "Marijuana has an extremely varying effect on animals; it's not predictable," she warns. "I'm not against using it therapeutically, but I don't feel like I have anything that tells me what a safe dose is right now. I have to remember the saying of 'Do no harm.' I want more information."

That's the general consensus at the national level, as well. According to American Veterinary Medical Association spokesman Michael San Fillipo, "This is something that is being used medically for people, so the potential, perhaps, is there."

This story originally appeared in the Summer 2013 Chronic-le medical marijuana dispensary guide. Find a copy at your local head shop, dispensary or grow store.

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