GREAT FALLS — On Jan. 1, recreational marijuana became legal in Montana, with some restrictions - but not every segment of the population is singing the praises of the new law.
“In people, it seems like it’s a relaxing recreational drug," said Dr. Mike Norton of Best Friends Animal Hospital in Great Falls. “But in pets, it seems to have a lot of odd effects.”
Norton says marijuana toxicity in animals is a problem his practice is seeing with alarming frequency.
“Right now, we’re seeing kind of an epidemic since Christmas,” said Norton. “Usually, I see about three or four a year, now I’m seeing three or four a week.”
Norton says that’s the trend in states that legalize marijuana, like Montana did at the beginning of the year.
“At the Pet Poison Control Center hotline, the volume of pot-related calls went up 400 percent in a year,” said Norton. “And in the other states, within the first six months of legalizing marijuana, they saw an uptick of 76 percent of the cases coming to emergency clinics and stuff like that.”
Most affected dogs ingest the drug in edible form, but curious animals might eat discarded joints.
If the issue is discovered early enough, owners should have nothing to worry about.
“If the dog is not showing signs and the owner knows the dog ingested it and brings it in, we can give the dog a drug called Apomorphine and make them throw it up within the first hour,” said Norton. But the THC in marijuana can inhibit vomiting and the longer it remains in the system, the more affected a dog becomes, eventually becoming almost comatose.
“Most dogs show up here, they can’t walk and they’re cold, 90 degrees,” said Norton “Normal temperature for a dog is 101.5. So if you were not caring for your animal and just left it out in the cold or didn’t know what was going on, that dog would probably get hypothermia and die before you would even know anything happened.”
But if these dogs are brought into the clinic they’ll be warmed up, given intravenous fluids, drugs for nausea and supportive care. Norton says they are usually back home in 24 to 36 hours.
Some dogs who ingest the drug will become agitated and even the slightest noises can send them to a near seizure.
“They tend to take three or four days in a dark room with earplugs in and then Valium as needed to stop from being so agitated,” said Norton.
Norton says he’s seen dogs who have ingested other drugs such as crack cocaine and methamphetamine. He says most owners are honest and he respects the confidentiality of the doctor-patient relationship.
“I have the same relationship with you as a doctor would, a client and a patient,” said Norton. “I’m not obligated to report anybody. That’s not something that I would do.”
From the Pet Poison Helpline website:
Animals can be poisoned by marijuana in different ways. They can ingest marijuana edibles such as brownies or pot butter, ingest the owner’s supply of marijuana (in any formulation), or by second hand smoke. Common symptoms of marijuana toxicity include sedation/lethargy, dilated pupils or glassed over eyes, dazed expression, difficulty walking and vomiting. Other symptoms can include either a low or high heart rate, vocalization such as whining or crying, agitation, trouble regulating temperature causing the body temperature to drop or rise and incontinence/dribbling urine, tremors, seizures and potentially coma. Signs of toxicity can be seen anywhere from 5 minutes to 12 hours after the animal is exposed to marijuana. The signs can potentially last 30 minutes to several days depending on the dose ingested.
Norton says he has not treated any cats for marijuana toxicity.
In addition to the physical toll it can take on pets, there’s a financial impact. Dr. Norton says a two-night stay to treat marijuana toxicity can cost owners up to $1,200.