Could CBD oil from the cannabis family be the next big thing for pets?

Some pet owners in Montreal say CBD oil is helping their pets cope with pain and anxiety. But with no Health Canada-approved CBD medications on the market right now, what are pet owners and veterinarians to make of the phenomenon?

'Everyone is super-interested in trying CBD for their pets,' says vet, but Health Canada still to OK it

Kristina Reusch says CBD oil has already helped one of her pets, and she hopes to soon give it to her black Labrador retriever, Sam. (Rebecca Ugolini/CBC)

It's a sunny afternoon, and Kristina Reusch is relaxing in her backyard in Kirkland, in Montreal's West Island, with her black Labrador retriever, Sam.

He's just come back from a walk, which takes more effort now that Sam is 12 years old, but Reusch has a product she hopes will help.

"Sam is going to be our newest CBD patient. He has hip dysplasia, and his hips are getting really stiff," she said. 

Reusch is one of a growing number of Montreal pet owners treating their pets for conditions like anxiety and pain using the Cannabidiol oil, or CBD, which is derived from the cannabis plant family.

But with no Health Canada-approved CBD medications for pets currently on the market and studies still underway, it's difficult for pet owners to tell if they are buying a product that is safe and in accordance with the law. 

What is CBD oil?

According to website of the Société Québécoise du Cannabis (SQDC), the provincial agency that sells recreational cannabis, CBD has "few or no psychotropic properties," unlike tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which is also extracted from cannabis plants.

The SQDC says CBD does "not cause a feeling of euphoria in users," but is instead "known for its therapeutic properties."

It was those properties that first attracted Reusch to CBD over a year ago, when her 9-year-old cat Hailey began acting out due to anxiety.

"She started ripping her fur out, to the point where I started noticing big bald patches all over her body," said Reusch.

After a prescription medication left Hailey drowsy and "zombie-like," Reusch began reading about CBD oil and ordered some from British Columbia for Hailey. 

"Everything remained normal, except for the fact that her behaviour issue, which was caused by anxiety, went away," said Reusch. 

Dr. Karen Joy Goldenberg, a veterinarian at the Pierrefonds Animal Hospital, is pictured here with her dog, Ben. (Rebecca Ugolini/CBC)

Veterinarians wait for Health Canada to weigh in

Dr. Karen Joy Goldenberg, a veterinarian at the Pierrefonds Animal Hospital, says Reusch's story isn't unusual.

"Everyone is super-interested in trying CBD for their pets," said Goldenberg.

Because there are currently no Health Canada-approved CBD pet medications on the market, however, the Quebec Order of Veterinarians says its members can't legally prescribe CBD oil to their patients.

There are 17 Health Canada-approved studies on prescription-only veterinary drugs containing cannabis underway or on the horizon, but until they're published, Goldenberg says, there's a lot we still don't know about how effective CBD is for pets.

 "Can it treat chronic pain? Can it treat seizures? The answer is probably 'yes,' to most or all of those, in pets, cats, dogs, in multiple species. The problem is, we don't have studies on it yet," said Goldenberg.

A 'booming' online market with potential dangers

With no Health Canada-approved CBD medications for pets right now, how are pet owners getting their hands on the oil? Goldenberg has a few ideas.

"Online retail is booming as far as those products go, which makes it scarier, because you really don't know what you're getting if you order things online," she said.

Any pet store selling CBD oil online or at brick-and-mortar locations "would be in contravention of the Cannabis Act and its Regulations," said Health Canada in an emailed statement. 

As for the products themselves, Health Canada says that "a processing licence under the Cannabis Regulations is needed to manufacture products containing CBD."

But it's not just a matter of respecting the laws. Goldenberg says your pet's health could be at risk if the CBD oil is not as advertised and contains THC, which can be toxic to cats and dogs.

"A minor intoxication would look like a pet being very out of it, sleepy, wobbly on their feet. Often they lose control of their bladder, so they are walking around, looking a little drunk, dribbling a little urine as they walk."

In extreme cases of THC intoxication, pets may go into a coma. Goldenberg says pet owners who observe those symptoms should bring their pet to a veterinarian right away.

As for CBD oil that is for sale at the SQDC, it's designed for human consumption only, according to spokesperson Fabrice Giguère.

According to the Société Québécoise du Cannabis, CBD has 'few or no psychotropic properties,' and does 'not cause a feeling of euphoria in users' but is instead known for its therapeutic properties.' (BC Cannabis Stores)

A new frontier for pet care

So how long will it be before pets like Reusch's could be going to their veterinarian for a CBD oil prescription, and what would those medications look like?

Health Canada says it has approved 17 Experimental Studies Certificates for veterinary drugs containing cannabis, available on a prescription-only basis.

One of the companies currently doing clinical trials is Canopy Animal Health, a division of the Canopy Growth Corporation's health-focused subsidiary, based in Smith Falls, Ont.

In a statement to CBC, Canopy Animal Health's Dana Vaughn says the company is developing "a range of cannabis-based health care products for companion animals, including dogs, cats and horses," but Vaughn could not offer a timeline on when those trials would be concluded.

And until a Health Canada-approved medication hits the market, Goldenberg will be waiting to use CBD for her pet patients. 

"As soon as the studies start coming out, I'm excited to start using CBD," said Goldenberg. 

"But I'm also going to be very cautious. I don't want to turn around in five or 10 years from now and say, 'Wow, here are all these pets that suffered side-effects that we could have prevented, if we waited for the science.'"


Rebecca Ugolini

Radio producer

Rebecca Ugolini is a born-and-raised Montrealer who loves covering the city for CBC Montreal's Daybreak. Follow her on Twitter at @RebeccaUgolini.