Alex Alejandrez says CBD is helping Frida, his 4-month-old Queensland heeler, calm down at night and get better rest. (Photos by Eric Johnson)

The Herb Column: CBD Is for Cats, Birds and Dogs

Pets and their people are finding relief from anxiety and other ailments

Back Web Only Jun 16, 2021 By Eric Johnson

Alex Alejandrez says that when he was growing up in a rural corner of Santa Cruz County, both animals and cannabis were a big part of his life. He recalls that his family had dogs, cats, chickens and a raccoon that his dad found when it was an abandoned kit. Because they lived along a creek, Alejandrez had his own tadpole farm.

He says his dad also grew marijuana, which he used to make medicinal rubs for pain management. In 1980s Santa Cruz, weed was everywhere, “but my parents are super old school, too,” Alejandrez says. “And they believe — and they instilled this in me — that we have everything on this earth that we need, and that cannabis is one of those things.”

The manager of Western Feed and Pet Supply in East Sacramento, Alejandrez says his two early interests have come together at the store, which sells CBD for animals. He reports that he has hundreds of customers who are helping their pets with CBD — also known as cannabidiol, in this case derived from hemp and specifically formulated for animals. 

The compound, which is available in the form of tinctures and chewable treats, is being used to treat a variety of issues, including anxiety, pain and seizures. He says dog people are giving CBD to their pets on long road trips and for separation anxiety when their people are on vacation — and he sells a lot of the stuff on the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve. He says cat owners give it to their kitties for anxiety, mobility and as an aid to digestion. It’s even good for chickens, Alejandrez says — especially chickens that have had a recent encounter with a hawk.

He reports that many of his customers have eliminated other medications, including drugs such as phenobarbital that have serious side effects, and switched to CBD. While studies have found minor side effects with pets’ use of CBD, including dry mouth and drowsiness, Alejandrez says the vast majority of his customers who have tried it are pleased with the results. And while there has been a recent explosion of CBD use in pet health care, he says this practice has been around for years. “It’s just now that people are coming around to it.”

Alejandrez’s personal experience with CBD goes back seven years — that’s when his Australian shepherd, Meiko, started to have trouble getting up and down stairs and stopped jumping up on the bed. He believes that the compound’s anti-inflammatory and pain-blocking powers dramatically improved Meiko‘s life. The dog is now 16 years old — a little bit rare for a 65-pound Australian shepherd.

Western Feed and Pet Supply in Sacramento offers several varieties of CBD for its customers’ dogs, cats and chickens.

Science Catching Up

Although academic research into the use of CBD as veterinary medication is a new field that has not yet produced many results, there is growing scientific evidence that backs up Alejandrez’s claims about its benefits.

Dr. Signe Beebe has owned and managed the Integrative Veterinary Center in East Sacramento for 21 years. Having been convinced of CBD’s healing properties long ago by the experiences of her own canine and feline patients and their people, as well as vast anecdotal evidence, she points to recent studies by Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, which support the compound’s efficacy for a number of maladies.

One study found that cannabidiol treatments given to dogs suffering from osteoarthritis — a common affliction in older animals — noticeably decreased the animals’ pain with no side effects. Another Cornell study found the compound effective in controlling seizures. Yet another looked at “canine neoplastic cell proliferation,” which refers to tumors, and found evidence that CBD may prove effective at combating cancer. Its findings were peer-reviewed and published by the journal Veterinary and Comparative Oncology. 

Beebe, who says about half of her patients are battling cancer, says she has been recommending CBD to people whose pets have the disease — with a disclaimer — since before the substance was legal. And whereas hemp-based CBD is popular in many pet-targeted products, Beebe, whose practice includes the use of acupuncture, vitamin C injections and Chinese herbal remedies, says she prefers varieties made from marijuana plants which have more than a trace of THC.

“If your animal is suffering uncontrollable seizures, if you’re afraid your animal is going to die, you’re probably going to bend the rules somewhat,” she says. “I didn’t feel it was my place to scold people who had the best intentions for their pets, so I helped them learn how to use it correctly. That’s why I have more than a decade’s experience using marijuana for the treatment of veterinary medical conditions.”

As with human cancer patients, Beebe says, CBD is hugely beneficial to pets who are receiving chemotherapy because it controls (or stops) vomiting and stimulates the patient’s appetite. Its palliative properties decrease the pain associated with the disease. And the U.S. Army veteran, who served in the 101st Airborne Division in the mid-1970s, says she was an early believer in the use of the compound to fight cancer — a position that was once controversial, and now is embraced by mainstream organizations such as the American Kennel Club.

How and Why It Works

Amanda Howland, cofounder of ElleVet Sciences, a Maine-based company that makes CBD products for dogs and cats and has partnered with Cornell for several studies, recalls being involved with the osteoarthritis study in 2016. Most of the animals who participated in the study were thought to be at the end of their lives and were in a lot of pain. “Many of them already had scheduled euthanasia dates,” Howland recalls. She and her colleagues were “mindblown,” she says, when the study showed that 80 percent of these dogs saw significant improvements after four weeks of CBD treatment. 

In explaining the science behind this fast-growing industry, Howland points to another study that explains why CBD works the way it does on animals as well as humans, and also lends credence to the theories about nature that Alejandrez learned from his parents while growing up. 

Scientists only recently learned that the human body, and that of every mammal, comes equipped with something known as the endogenous cannabinoid system. Located within the central nervous system, the endocannabinoid system consists of enzymes and molecules including cannabinoid receptors, which, as their name suggests, respond when stimulated by cannabis.

“The whole job of the endocannabinoid system is to keep your body in a state of balance or homeostasis,” Howland explains. “Anything that’s out of whack in your body, whether it’s inflammation or anxiety or whatever, your endocannabinoid system wants to put things back to right. … It’s so important, yet even a generation ago, nobody even knew what it was. And it was not studied in medical school or vet school.”

Beebe predicts that the research spurred by ElleVet and others will expand into every area of veterinary medicine, pointing out that industry news outlets have reported that CBD is an effective treatment when used to complement conventional veterinary practices.

“This is a huge addition to the veterinarian’s armamentarium for the treatment of disease,” she says.

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