With marijuana laws loosening up nationwide, more pet owners are finding themselves facing a predicament: “My dog ate weed. Now what?” Yes, more dogs are scarfing their owners’ stash, and it can be a major health concern for the animals. In early 2019, ASPCA’s Animal Poison Control Center fielded a whopping 765 percent more calls about dogs eating marijuana than it had the year prior. Likewise, veterinarians everywhere say marijuana toxicity cases have skyrocketed.
While cats are occasionally the culprits, the vast majority of weed-stealing pets are dogs. Most pups could care less about dry herb, however — it’s all those THC-infused brownies, cookies, and other ganja foods they’re finding that they can’t seem to resist.
“Most dogs who ingest marijuana are eating edibles,” says Kenneth Drobatz, DVM, director of emergency services at the University of Pennsylvania’s Ryan Veterinary Hospital. “It’s not unusual for college kids to come home on break and then suddenly the family pet starts acting strangely. We’ll ask the owner if their dog could’ve gotten into weed, and they say no, no, no. But then they ask their kid and, sure enough, they’d brought a pot brownie home.”
Although dogs very rarely die from marijuana toxicity, it’s a serious condition requiring immediate veterinary care. “They often become ataxic, have a wobbly gait, and might seem light-sensitive, blinking and looking around a lot,” Drobatz says. “If you move your hand toward their head, they back away excessively.” Sometimes dogs dribble urine or vomit, he adds, or, in severe cases, have seizures. Also, just like how pot affects different people differently, some pups will get drowsy while others become anxious and hyperexcitable.
But exactly how they’ll react to weed depends largely on how strong the stuff is. Generally, the higher the THC content, the more toxic it will be, says Drobatz, which means today’s medical-grade marijuana is a lot more hazardous than the ditch weed you may have smoked in the dorms. Pot oils and butters used for cooking and baking tend to be higher in THC.
Edibles, on the other hand — dogs’ favorite form of cannabis — pose a unique danger. Aside from THC, they’re often made with other ingredients that are toxic to pups. Chocolate is the big one, especially dark chocolate because it’s rich in caffeine and theobromine, two compounds canines can’t metabolize as humans can. If a dog downs enough chocolate, it can cause vomiting, seizures, heart problems, and even death. The sugar alcohol xylitol, another common ingredient in edibles, is similarly toxic to dogs.
The pup’s size also plays role in how weed will affect them. “Like any drug, the higher the dose of THC per body weight, the more potential potency,” Drobatz says. Hence, a tiny terrier may have a rougher go than, say, a full-grown yellow lab.
The biggest problem, however, is that owners often don’t realize their dog poached their pot until they notice them acting funny. This can make it tough to know exactly how much the dog devoured or how long ago. For this reason, if you have any weed in the house — in any form — Drobatz advises keeping a close eye out for the token signs of marijuana toxicity so that, if you spot them, you can act fast.
“As soon as you see any of the symptoms, bring them into the emergency vet, because you don’t know how severe their reaction will get,” Drobatz says. Just be straight with them about what happened, even if marijuana is illegal where you live. Vets have zero interest in turning people in — they only care about the dog’s immediate well-being.
It’s also an option called an animal poison control hotline for help, although they usually just tell people to go to the vet, Drobatz notes. Plus, most hotlines charge for the service, so if your fairly certain cannabis is causing your pet’s peculiar behavior, it’s fine to skip this step. “Marijuana has become a very common intoxication, so most vets can look at the characteristic signs, know what the problem is and know how to treat it,” he explains.
In those rare instances when an owner catches their pup in the act and gets them to the vet before they begin exhibiting symptoms, the doc may induce vomiting to get the drug out of their body. But once they begin showing neurological signs, vomiting can be dangerous, says Drobatz, so there’s a narrow window in which this is an option.
Most of the time, vets see pups that are already sick, spaced out, or having trouble walking. In these cases, they offer supportive care, meaning they’ll keep the dog under close observation for several hours, possibly even overnight, and manage their symptoms as they develop. For anxious or agitated pups, they may provide a sedative.
“Sometimes we’ll administer IV fluids to keep them hydrated because we don’t let them drink or take anything orally,” Drobatz says. Fluids can also promote urination, he adds, which will help flush THC from the body. “In really severe cases, intralipid therapy is given through an IV that absorbs marijuana and takes it out of their tissues,” he adds.
Although this whole situation can be scary — and might make you feel like the worst pet owner ever — do your best to stay calm and present. “Chances are your dog will be OK,” Drobatz says. “Once it goes through their system, they should be fine.”