Living with an anxious dog can be a struggle. You hate seeing your canine companion in distress, and naturally want him to receive immediate relief. Pinpointing an effective treatment is not always straightforward, however.
“They pick up on our anxiety, little changes, so sometimes it takes a while for us to figure out what is actually causing that. And that can be frustrating for a pet parent to not have an obvious answer right away,” says Dr. Casara Andre, founder of Veterinary Cannabis – Education and Consulting, based in Wheat Ridge, Colorado.
Pet parents have a number of available treatment options, including prescriptions, behavior therapy, supplements and essential oils. Hemp-based products—generally available as chews, or in liquid form given orally or added to food—are another increasingly popular option. But do they work, are they safe, and most importantly, are they right for your anxious dog?
Hemp for Dogs
Hemp is essentially the same plant (Cannabis sativa) that marijuana comes from, says Dr. Gary Richter, a veterinarian who practices at Montclair Veterinary Hospital in Oakland, California. “Except legally speaking, hemp plants are only allowed to contain, at most, 0.3 percent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC is the compound that triggers euphoria). So there are effectively no issues as far as drug abuse.”
Pet supplement manufacturers use flowers from the hemp plant to extract cannabidiol (CBD), the primary compound coveted for its health benefits, he says. “CBD can have a very positive effect as it pertains to stress, anxiety and a number of other medical conditions. It’s a pretty good pain reliever, too.”
Most of the research for veterinary use is in its infancy, he says. “We’re just starting to see some studies come out looking at the use of CBD to treat arthritis in dogs (1), but with regards to studies for stress and anxiety, there’s all types of evidence when it comes to humans, but not just yet in the vet field.”
Despite the lack of research, experts say hemp is generally safe for pets. “There really is no such thing as CBD toxicity,” Richter says. “Worst case scenario is if a dog gets too much, he might get too sleepy, and every once in a blue moon you might see a dog with a tummy upset, and they may have vomiting and diarrhea. And if that happens, you just stop giving it and they get better.”
Vets say most concerns about hemp-based products for pets relate to quality control (for example, products containing too much THC).
Can Hemp Calm an Anxious Dog?
As with any supplement or pharmaceutical, hemp is not a cure-all, and it doesn’t target any specific issue, such as separation anxiety or noise phobia. “It may be effective on its own for some dogs or for some conditions, or work better in combination with additional treatments in other cases,” says Dr. Jennifer Coates, a veterinary writer, editor and consultant based in Fort Collins, Colorado.
What hemp does do is make behavior therapy easier to administer, Richter says. “If you think about it in terms of humans, you cannot medicate an anxiety order away. At best, a medication or supplement like CBD will calm dogs down enough to where they can pay attention to training and behavioral modification, and in many ways that’s what you’re hoping to do,” he explains.
“If you can change the situation from them being in an absolute blind panic to them being able to focus enough to pay attention, then you can start to change their behavior with training and other methods,” Richter continues. “But it’s never going to be just about the supplement or just about the medication.”
It’s also not as simple as giving your dog a hemp chew when he’s in the midst of an attack; treatment is an ongoing process. “Whenever you give an animal something for anxiety, you have to start from before they’re actually having the anxiety,” Richter says. “If you can get the dog before they get all worked up, then sometimes you can prevent it from happening, and CBD can certainly help with that.”
When Should I Give My Dog Hemp?
Experts strongly recommend giving dogs hemp only under the guidance of a vet. The challenge here is that vets can seem evasive on the subject of hemp, and with good reason. The DEA—the agency that licenses a vet’s prescription-writing ability—classifies all cannabinoids, including commercially-available hemp, as Schedule 1 substances, Andre says.
The legal concerns surrounding hemp can be confusing. A company that’s certified to grow hemp in its state can produce cannabis as long as it remains at .03 percent THC, Andre says. “Tracking the ‘correctness’ of this is often difficult, but it does take advantage of loopholes in the law and differences between state and federal regulations,” she says.
In multiple places, the policy contradicts itself. “However, between written policy and verbal stances by the DEA, no veterinarian can prescribe or recommend any cannabinoid,” she says.
Vets can provide education, however. “Vets can absolutely educate pet parents to promote harm reduction, and to make sure the animal is safely using CBD,” Andre says. If you’d like to consider hemp as a treatment option, still talk to your vet, but be aware that the information you receive may be limited by necessity.
If you keep your expectations about hemp-based products for pets realistic and use them in conjunction with behavior therapy, your furry family member may benefit. Whether or not hemp is suitable for your dog and situation is a decision that should be made by your vet.