Tommie Waters of Perryville, Arkansas, is confused. “Recently I received a catalogue selling dog-related products,” she writes, “and I noted it had an item that sounded like marijuana. To quote the promotion: ‘Cannabidiol Wellness Dog Treats, infused with non-psychoactive cannabinoids and derived from organic hemp extract, are nutritious and delicious. Made with organic super food ingredients, the calming treats help ease a wide range of symptoms and issues such as appetite stimulation, anxiety, seizures, pain and joint muscle problems and can improve quality of life at the end of life. Handmade in the USA.’
“The treats come in two flavors,” Ms. Waters says, “blueberry and pumpkin, and in two sizes depending on a dog’s weight. What advice might Tufts have regarding the use of a marijuana-related product for dogs? Helpful? Harmful?”
Ms. Waters, veterinarians from our pain clinic, nutrition clinic, and behavior clinic have all weighed in saying that based on the wording you provide, the product is illegally misbranded with false health claims because the scientific evidence is completely lacking that these treats can help ameliorate everything from anxiety and seizures to muscle and joint problems. There is also a dearth of data to support their safety. The Tufts vets would not feed these treats to their own dogs.
The marijuana connection
We should be clear that these treats do not contain marijuana per se, which in most states can be dispensed (for humans) only through approved dispensaries, presumably for medicinal purposes. The cannabidiol that this food’s promotional materials say it contains is just one substance in a class of several active ingredients in marijuana called cannabinoids. The various cannabinoids have different effects. For instance, some are thought to be anti-anxiety agents while some cause a euphoric state, and some increase hunger.
Cannabidiol, which is contained in hemp as well as in the marijuana plant cannabis (and which is why the product can be sold in stores rather than through an authorized marijuana dispensary), is not thought to cause euphoria. A dog won’t get high or experience any neurotoxicity that could lead to, say, psychosis. Rather, cannabidiol is said by some to reduce anxiety. “But there is not adequate high-quality research to support that claim,” says Tufts Animal Behavior Clinic veterinarian Stephanie Borns-Weil, DVM.
Indeed, if cannabidiol products had undergone clinical trials to support the medical claims made in their advertisements, they would most likely be sold as prescription drugs. Calling a product a nutritional supplement or nutriceutical rather than a medication “is for some companies, just a way of attempting to skirt Food and Drug Administration regulations,” Dr. Borns-Weil comments. Although nutritional supplement products are not permitted to make health claims, many get away with doing so. “It’s a very under-regulated industry,” Dr. Borns-Weil adds. “Companies can pretty much say anything” and not have to worry about anyone coming after them.
When Dr. Borns-Weil was interested in learning more about one of the over-the-counter products for dogs like the treat Ms. Waters queried about, she relates, “I contacted the company and asked, ‘What’s in here, and how much of it, and where’s your proof that it does what you say it does?’ An email from the company explained that no detailed information could be shared about the contents or in-house lab testing due to the proprietary nature of the ingredients.” In essence she was told, it’s a trade secret, but trust us. “While the potential benefits of cannabidiol are plausible, products need to be investigated openly in a scientific way, not just for efficacy but also for safety,” Dr. Borns-Weil says.