Veterinary Cannabis: Uses, Products, Stigmas, Research and Beyond
We interviewed Stephen Cital a talented Veterinary Technician who is following a similar path to The Mary Jane Experience – trying to destigmatize and educate people about cannabis – but in the animal world. Stephen became of the first veterinary cannabis counselors and travels the country to educate other professionals on safe and effective cannabis use in clinical settings.
Much like in the human cannabis world, there is confusion, stigma, fear, lack of education, and many other issues that Stephen is battling. We asked him to give us a glimpse into the Veterinary Cannabis world, listen or read below.
You are a registered veterinary technician, one of the first veterinary cannabis counselors specialists in the country, an educator, and exotics specialist; you have quite the stacked resume! How did you find this particular path, and why is it important to you?
You’re absolutely right, I have quite the resume behind my name, which I’m really proud and excited about because I try to share all of that knowledge with everybody that I come across. I think in medicine (especially on the nursing side of things) there used to be this mentality of hoarding information. I’m all about dispersing information, so everyone can be just as great and elevate patient care.
As far as getting into the whole cannabis side of things, a couple of my certifications are specifically related to anesthesia and pain management. I have to be honest, I was very Western minded when it came to medicine and utilizing drugs and particular molecules created by pharmaceutical companies to treat pain and anesthetized animals.
From my recreational experience with cannabis in particular, and then some medicinal uses, I thought cannabis would be perfect for some of those palliative care cases. Cases where the animal has terminal cancer, or is just very old and losing weight and doesn’t have muscle mass because they’re not getting enough calories or exercising enough because they’re in pain from things like osteoarthritis.
So, I started introducing cannabis products. Mostly hemp-based products into practice. What ended up happening was, I would have these really sick animals, and the owners were interested in euthanizing their animal at a set date because their quality of life had decreased so much. We started using different cannabis products, and that euthanasia date would pass. I would say, “hey, I thought we were going to be doing X on this date?” to the owner. And they said, ‘you know the quality of life for my pet has improved so significantly with these particular kinds of cannabis molecules that we’re not interested in doing that anymore because it’s working so well.’
So I thought, ‘well huh’ if it’s working so well in these kinds of terminal cases, let’s bring this on to non-terminal cases. I felt a little bit more comfortable with the dosing and got more comfortable with the practice of using cannabinoids as medicine and again see the same great success and interest with owners. It just it snowballed from there.
Can you explain to us the different types of cannabis or hemp and what products you use?
I think we all understand the difference between marijuana cannabis products versus hemp products and the differences in the amount of Delta-9 THC in those particular products. Both have a place in specific disease processes and in individual patients.
I use mostly hemp-based products, and I do work for a company called ElleVet Sciences as the director of education and development. We have a hemp-based product that has undergone some clinical studies at Cornell University and now the University of Florida and the Royal Beck College. We’re going to be starting some projects up there.
A majority of products, at least in veterinary medicine, come from hemp because animals seem to be more sensitive to Delta-9 THC. They get too high, or they get what’s called static ataxia from higher levels of Delta-9 THC.
The problem is we have this stigma against anything cannabis, whether it’s hemp or marijuana in the veterinary field. Veterinarians are very cautious creatures, I would say even more so than human practitioners, and it’s been a new hurdle to introduce these products. So far, hemp-based products seem to be the least scary for practitioners to swallow though and is largely the most significant component in our industry.
Stigma in the veterinary world – can you expand on how the veterinarian community views cannabis?
In the veterinary community, one of the most significant complications we see when it comes to cannabis – whether it’s being used as a medicine or not – is THC toxicity. While we know the LD (the lethal dose) for a dog, cat, or any sort of animal is exceptionally high, we still do see these animals come in with some pretty severe symptoms. That has perpetuated this stigma against anything cannabis.
When we start talking about other cannabinoids like CBD or some of the other minor ones, the question I get all the time is, “oh my god are they going to get high?” and I’m just like “no!” They are not going to get high. With specific ratios, we do not expect to see any of the high effects that we would see with a lot of THC.
There is a lack of understanding of the different types of cannabinoids. There is absolutely no curriculum in veterinary schools. Some technician schools cover the endocannabinoid system and utilizing these products. I think we’re going to start to see the education system change. But animals have this whole receptor system that we’ve ignored for decades, yet vets are scared to use cannabis still.
The other problem that we have is organized veterinary medicine. On the human side of things, there is the American Medical Association. Vets have the American Veterinary Medical Association, the AVMA. The AVMA until recently had a pretty hard stance against any sort of cannabis products for animals. It wasn’t until recently we started to see their position evolve a little bit.
I do give the AVMA credit now, but they terrified a lot of veterinarians. They were responsible for halting clinical research at universities, it was that extreme that set us back and created some of these biases.
What is the state of research on the Vet side?
What’s being spread and perpetuated is that there is no research. But when you actually go to PubMed or spend time trying to dig up research on cannabinoids (again just getting away from only THC or just CBD) there are over 23,000 studies on these different receptor systems, these different major and minor cannabinoids, terpenes PK studies, PD studies, all of these things. There are over 23,000 published references when it comes to cannabinoids or cannabis in general, and that expands over many different species being utilized in these various research models, from insects to mollusks to lab mice and rats to dogs, cats, and even primates.
There is a lot of information out there but what ends up happening (at least as far as the interpretation of these studies) is that veterinarians mostly say, ‘oh well this is preclinical research, this isn’t a rodent model, this was in an X, or this wasn’t a clinical efficacy study’. While that is true, we also have to understand for a majority of medications we utilize in veterinary medicine, it’s all off-label anyway. There are maybe one or two studies to actually support the safe and effective use of a lot of the traditional pharmaceutical drugs that we use in veterinary medicine.
What I am really proud of now is a lot of veterinary conferences, professional conferences for continuing education credits are actually including cannabis talks now. I think this year I’m doing 24 cannabis talks at some of these major veterinary Conference, last year I did 31.
It is growing every year, and there’s even a veterinary cannabis specific conference that’s organized by Dr. Kucera Andre from veterinary cannabis org where it’s nothing but canna related topics in animals for two days which is really fun.
Can you explain a little bit about how cannabis works in the body and if there is any difference between the endocannabinoid system and humans versus animals?
The Endocannabinoid system, in general, is a set of receptors. Largely the CB1 and CB2 receptors. There’s arguably a number three, the G couple protein receptor number 55, but it is also receptive to other molecules, so it’s not classified as a classic ECS receptor.
We have these specific receptors that are trying to create homeostasis and balance within our own physiology in our bodies. I think it’s important to remember when a human or an animal goes to the doctor, and we give medication, or we do an operation, or we offer IV fluids, we’re trying to assist the body in healing itself. We’re trying to get the body back to that homeostatic state. We’re not necessarily repairing things. Some medications kill microbes and certain viruses, but we’re reliant still on the body being able to fight these things alongside the medication.
What the endocannabinoid receptor system does is continuously activate this homeostatic regulator within our own physiology.
As far as the cannabinoids system differing from people to animals, it doesn’t vary that much. The big difference we see is the distribution of these specific receptors in different tissues. We see a lot more of these ECS receptors in the central nervous system of animals (in the brain). That’s why we think that dogs and cats can be so sensitive to Delta-9 THC and get high so quickly.
As far as the physiology of it in animals, it’s pretty much the same – but the distribution of these receptors is different in different species. They’re in higher and lower concentrations throughout the body, which is really the only difference between humans and in our animal friends.
What are some of the ailments that can potentially be solved using cannabis?
Right now in the literature, we technically only have one clinical study using a hemp-based product in dogs for osteoarthritis, so a chronic pain model. With that said, we have several studies in the works for different things and plenty of anecdotal evidence and experience with a lot of the same conditions that we are trying to utilize these molecules for in humans. Definitely, acute pain is one of them, anxiety is one of them, seizures another.
We have two great studies going on right now we have one out of Colorado State University, and we have one out of the University of Florida with Dr. Joel wash logs lab.
We have interest in cancer, so we have one completed in each row study, and we have an in-vitro study with utilizing these different molecules for cancer patients to hopefully slow down or even kill cancer cells. I think it goes without saying we know that cannabis and hemp products are definitely good for some of the symptoms related to chemotherapy or even radiation.
We know we know we have excellent benefits there, but we also want to test to see what kind of formulas we can use actually to kill some of these cancer cell cells in animals. Basically, everything that we see in humans we also are seeing in animals
Are you starting to see the advantages of cannabis over pharmaceuticals?
I think both examples are relevant in veterinary medicine. We have a particular population of pet owners that want to use cannabis in place of traditional pharmaceuticals and then we have a community of pet owners that want to use it in conjunction and then we have kind of that mix in-between. I think both are appropriate.
In my experience so far – what ends up happening is cannabis works so well for pets that owners start decreasing in traditional pharmaceuticals on their own. I can’t recommend doing that, but it happens. Owners come back for a recheck, and they’re like, ‘you know Fido hasn’t been on this non-steroidal anti-inflammatory or this traditional anti-seizure medication since X because it seems like these cannabis products are working so well.’
How do you know you are getting a good CBD Pet Product?
I do want to put a word of caution out there about all these CBD products coming to the market. It is essential for pet owners to do their due diligence in researching the product that they’re going to use. Make sure the product has been tested. I would say a majority of them haven’t as far as safety and efficacy in actual animal models. Certainly just like we tell human patients, ask for a certificate of analysis. Make sure we’re not giving pets contaminants that are going to make them sick.
What are some of the top questions you get about the subject?
I think some of the top questions we get all the time in the veterinary space are about dosing. That can be a little bit tricky because each animal (depending on the health of their endocannabinoid system) is going to react differently to different products and different ratios of cannabinoids in these particular products.
Dosing can be tricky, and we also have to take into consideration the disease process that the patient might be going through. Things like anxiety I may dose at much lower dosages compared to something like cancer or horrible seizures in a pet.
Being able to have the conversation with your veterinarian and finding a veterinarian that understands cannabis and how to use it appropriately is going to be something for pet owners to research.
Again going back to the stigma and bias against cannabis products, most veterinarians will say they can’t recommend cannabis or will pretend not to know anything about it because they are scared by these biases. It’s a challenge finding a practitioner that’s willing and able to talk about this particular treatment method.
Are there really any adverse side effects to CBD or hemp in animals?
Some of the things that we do see (and I wouldn’t necessarily call them bad) when an animal ingests a large amount, or maybe they’re first starting on a particular cannabis or hemp product, we may see increased lethargy. Depending on the issue or condition that may or may not be a bad thing. The other thing that we have seen in some of the studies is diarrhea related to ingestion of these products. That’s really dependent on what the carrier oil is. Is this carrier oil novel to your pet that’s been only eating a specific type of dog food or cat food for an extended period of time? Is that going to cause GI upset or is the particular treat or chew that it’s in going to cause upsets? I can’t necessarily relate all issues to the CBD or THC or specific cannabinoids in the products.
We also see in the literature an increase in the ALP which is a liver enzyme. That’s something that we can test for in animals before and during cannabis treatment. What’s important to note about that is, even though we’re seeing an increase in this liver enzyme we are not seeing increases in other liver enzymes which would suggest the liver is not happy with you. So, even though we may see this increase in the ALP, vets need to look at the whole picture and the entire health status of the animal.
Other than that I can’t think of anything else that we are seeing in real life or that’s been mentioned in the literature.
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