Take it straight from a veterinarian. Before purchasing a CBD product, it’s important to understand how the cannabis-derived compound works, and how to choose something that is safe for your gun dog. (Photo By: Tony J. Peterson)
We live in the golden era of pain management for dogs. The growing number of available options to manage chronic injuries and arthritis provides gun dog owners with a mixed bag of solutions to keep their hunting companions limber and comfortable. In recent years, veterinarians have seen an uptick in the number of inquiries about using CBD to treat these conditions. With a proven track record of aiding in pain control in humans, hunting dog owners have flocked to the once forbidden flower in search of the same healing properties.
CBD, short for cannabidiol, is an extract of the cannabis plant that has quickly risen to the top of the list of popular, emerging pain management therapies for dogs. Aside from pain control, dog owners have also pointed to anecdotal reports of CBD’s ability to ease anxiety, manage seizures, and even reduce the growth of some tumors in people. As one of my favorite professors instilled in our class during veterinary school, mammals are mammals; an adage that insinuates a compound that treats a specific ailment in humans very likely has a similar mechanism of action in other mammalian species. So, what do we know about CBD in dogs, and more importantly, how well does it work?
What’s the Buzz About?
First, let’s clarify that we’re specifically focusing on CBD, which is the sister compound to THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), both of which naturally occur in the cannabis plant. These two work synergistically to create the euphoria experienced in recreational cannabis use, but CBD alone provides the bulk of the medicinal therapy touted in cannabis use without the “high.”
It’s critical for the safety of your gun dog to point out that canines are far more sensitive to the psychoactive effects of THC than humans (an exception to my professor’s beloved slogan), and any supplement you give your dog should be guaranteed THC-free or present only in trace amounts to avoid an overdose. As legalization of recreational use has expanded across the country, veterinarians have seen an explosion in marijuana toxicity cases in their clinics, mostly in the form of tasty edibles gleaned from counter surfing canines. While an overdose is rarely fatal, dog owners usually rack up heavy vet bills in supportive care and diagnostics in addition to generating uncomfortable conversations with veterinarians in states where recreational use is forbidden.
How Does CBD Work?
CBD functions by stimulating the body’s endocannabinoid system, a fascinating and utterly complex network of signaling receptors that regulates a litany of functions in the brain and other organs. In a sense, CBD supplementation is a truly holistic therapy that doesn’t target one specific area or system, and its mostly desirable side effects can’t be parsed out since receptors for these compounds are found throughout the body
Research has shown widespread individual variation in the numbers of receptors in the endocannabinoid system in humans (and presumably in dogs as well), leading to different levels of responsiveness to CBD therapy across the population. It’s also important to note that as a fat-soluble compound, the uptake and onset of action of CBD may vary based on the dog’s body condition as well as the fat content and timing of its last meal.
CBD is fat-soluble and can therefore vary in effectiveness based on your dog’s physical fitness. (Photo By: Seth Bynum, DVM)
Benefits of CBD
Despite a mountain of anecdotal evidence, the peer-reviewed research supporting CBD use in dogs remains limited, with the majority of the studies focusing on its utility as a pain management supplement. The results of this research strongly suggest that CBD does, indeed, present dog owners with a viable option for controlling chronic pain in their arthritic dogs.
While veterinarians would find life much easier if our patients could just verbalize how they feel there are, in fact, effective means of measuring pain in animals. Several extensive, double-blind (not to be confused with retriever trials) research projects demonstrated that, across the board, CBD appears to help canine patients deal with mild-to-moderate pain. Currently, there are two veterinary-specific CBD products for chronic pain on the market, with more options very likely on the way to meet the burgeoning demand.
In practice, I’ve seen CBD provide nearly immediate and noticeable improvement in nagging pain from arthritis and late-stage cancer. I’ve also had clients profess with great joy that the compound’s appetite-stimulating tendencies helped boost the quality of life for advanced diabetic and kidney failure patients that struggled to eat. In all of those cases, none of the traditional medical therapies provided any appreciable help to alleviate their symptoms.
Regulations surrounding cannabis have made it challenging (and potentially unlawful) for veterinarians to prescribe or recommend CBD for their patients. We can, however, help our clients navigate through the thick smoke of misinformation and downright false promises that abound regarding this trendy supplement. For patients that I believe would benefit from its medicinal properties, I’ve also developed a very effective line of creative questioning in the exam room to help dog owners suggest CBD without making a formal recommendation.
CBD can potentially help dogs deal with mild-to-moderate pain, including that from arthritis or late-stage cancer. (Photo By: Seth Bynum, DVM)
Limitations of CBD
When it comes to CBD, your mileage may vary. While I’ve seen impressive (often unexpectedly so) positive outcomes from CBD therapy, I’ve also worked with patients that showed little-to-no improvement despite its mostly unearned “wonder-drug” moniker.
Research continues into the therapeutic effects of CBD beyond pain management, but for now, there is scanned quantifiable support for the compound’s other touted benefits. While a more substantial body of evidence exists in support of CBD as an epilepsy treatment in humans, the veterinary profession hasn’t yet proven that this supplement is a reliable tool for battling seizures in dogs. Furthermore, its reported role in controlling anxiety and boosting mood in humans has not yet been adequately substantiated in animals outside abundant first-hand accounts on Internet forums. Claims that CBD is effective in managing allergies in dogs are—at best—a stretch for the vast majority of patients with this condition. My own experience with patients who struggle with debilitating allergies suggests that CBD treatment alone offers little more than placebo for their owners.
Although it’s sourced from a plant, keep in mind that CBD is still a drug with some side effects. The compound requires metabolism by the liver, and very little research has been performed to evaluate the impacts of regular, long-term use. The decision to start your dog on CBD should weigh the anticipated benefits against his current underlying health, especially if there is a history of liver disease or concurrent medications that also utilize liver metabolism.
Additionally, CBD is most certainly not a cheap alternative to myriad other pain management therapies with proven track records and generic formulations. While there are rarely any financial limits we hunting dog enthusiasts place on the health of our canine companions, CBD is undeniably expensive for long-term use, especially in bigger dogs. It’s not a supplement you want to skimp on, either, since safe and pure CBD extraction adds to its expense along with the cost of sourcing organic, pesticide-free materials without any heavy metal contamination. Skip the shady gas station CBD/Kratom counter and prepare to pay a premium for safe, tested CBD tinctures for your gun dog.
Admittedly, navigating the CBD marketplace is challenging for even the savviest of consumers. Since CBD quality and production is loosely regulated, cheaper sources may not contain the levels claimed on the vial. Many edible products for pets contain far too little CBD to offer any noticeable qualities aside from mindless calories. Other cannabis-based canine joint supplements use seductive marketing to insinuate their “hemp oil extract” (which contains no CBD) provides the same therapeutic benefits as extracts rich in the compound.
Before administering CBD to your dog, make sure to consult your vet for guidance. (Photo By: Seth Bynum, DVM)
A happy medium
If you’re enthusiastic about trying CBD for your hunting dog, the best approach begins with a consultation with your veterinarian and a healthy dose of tempered expectations. In my experience, it’s neither a miracle drug nor snake oil, but rather an option in our medical kit that has changed the lives of some patients while making no difference in others.
With your vet’s guidance, consider CBD as an option to use first in conjunction with other traditional therapies for chronic pain management, as most of the research in this field is fairly compelling. As our knowledge of this compound expands, expect more quality products on the market and guidelines for effective doses. Hopefully these advancements will accompany more resources for veterinarians to help their patients along with a green light to officially prescribe CBD when deemed necessary. For now, bird dog owners will have to continue navigating the use of CBD therapy without a clear path or full support from veterinarians. If you’ve thus far struggled to find relief for your hunting dog, it may still be a leap of faith worth taking.