From Edibles to Pot-Packed Human Waste, Why Bay Area Dogs Are Getting So High

3 min
Maizey Klivans attempts to sit up straight while waiting to see the vet after she ate some suspect substances in the park.  (Laura Klivans/KQED)

I

t all started on a Tuesday night, when I came home from work to an unmistakable absence. My brown-and-white pitbull mix Maizey wasn't at the top of the stairs to greet me. Instead she was in her bed, shaky and confused.

When I tried to get her up, she stumbled, nearly falling over while standing still. Walking to the vet, she leapt like a puppy chasing imaginary balls.

Later, at the 24-hour veterinary clinic, the staff ran some tests and determined Maizey was in no immediate danger.

Instead, they wagered a guess that Maizey was simply high. On marijuana.

How Are Dogs Getting High?

"Dogs will get into anything and everything," said veterinarian Dorrie Black of San Francisco-based veterinary clinic Animal Internal Medicine and Specialty Services.

Dr. Black said dogs ingest marijuana by eating the remainder of a joint, or getting into someone's edible marijuana, either at home, on the street or in parks.

Another unsavory source? Human feces tainted with marijuana. This is, in fact, what we think happened to Maizey, who spent quite a bit of time in the park bushes the morning she got stoned.

"Dogs love that scent, to them it’s perfume," said Dr. Black.

Dr. Black and other veterinarians believe this is becoming more common in the Bay Area, as more people are forced to live on the streets.

Dr. Dorrie Black works at a 24-hour veterinary clinic near Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. She said she often treats three dogs per week who have ingested marijuana.
Dr. Dorrie Black works at a 24-hour veterinary clinic near Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. She said she often treats three dogs per week who have ingested marijuana. (Laura Klivans/KQED)

What Does a High Dog Look Like?

Veterinarian Benjamin A. Otten of allCREATURES Veterinary Clinic looks for these telltale symptoms when identifying "marijuana toxicity" in a dog:

  • Wobbly movements, like a person who is drunk
  • Dribbling urine
  • Low temperature
  • Nervousness

Dogs exhibit these symptoms because THC — the psychoactive component of marijuana — is poisonous to them. Despite that, none of the vets interviewed for this story has ever seen an animal die from marijuana toxicity.

"There's nothing about that actual drug itself that will kill them," Dr. Black said. "It doesn't cause any organ failure, it doesn't cause liver failure, renal failure."

What can happen, Black said, is that the drug can sedate a dog so fully that it will inhale its own vomit, which can be lethal. For that reason, Dr. Black cautions pet owners to play it safe.

"If you do not know the quantity that they got into, I'm always going to recommend that you go to your vet," she said.

Cannabidiol, or CBD, on the other hand, is actually marketed to pet owners for a variety of pet ailments. But the research is still incomplete about its efficacy for treating things like animal anxiety and seizures, and veterinarians are not allowed to recommend CBD to patients (although there is a bill making its way through California's Senate that could change that).

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How Do You Treat a Dog That Has Ingested Marijuana?

To reduce marijuana's effects on a dog, Dr. Black said there are a few options: veterinarians can induce vomiting, pump a dog's stomach or give the dog activated charcoal, which will help remove the marijuana from the dog's system.

On average, it typically takes about 24 hours for a dog to return to normal — but it varies based on the strength and amount of the marijuana the dog has eaten.

Dr. Otten, who formerly worked as an emergency vet, joked about what he used to tell his pet owners: "We’re gonna take your dog in, we’re gonna put him in a quiet room, we’re gonna play some Led Zeppelin for him and give him some Doritos and you can pick him up in the morning."

A high Maizey Klivans, home after getting checked out by the vet. Her human (the author) found her in this infrequently occupied area of the apartment… just… mellowing out.
A high Maizey Klivans, home after getting checked out by the vet. Her human (the author) found her in this infrequently occupied area of the apartment… just… mellowing out. (Laura Klivans/KQED)

How Much Does Treating Your Dog Cost?

While my own vet bill put us out $300, Dr. John de Jong, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, said interventions like blood work and IV fluids could cost up to $1,000.

What About Cats?

It's rare for cats to ingest marijuana. Dr. Black has only seen one case in her 17 years in emergency veterinary medicine.

How Has Legalization for Humans Changed Things for Dogs?

Dr. de Jong, who is based in Massachusetts, is seeing more incidences of marijuana toxicity. Marijuana is legal medically and recreationally in Massachusetts.

"In those states that have legalized marijuana, we are seeing an increased incidence of marijuana toxicity in pets, especially in dogs," he said.

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Calls to ASPCA’s Animal Poison Control Center about dogs eating weed have increased seven-fold since last year, and calls to the Pet Poison Helpline have quadrupled in the past five years. A 2012 study conducted in Colorado found a significant correlation between the number of medical marijuana licenses and marijuana toxicosis cases in dogs.

In California, both Dr. Black and Dr. Otten said the changes to marijuana's legality have not increased the number of visits they get from blitzed dogs and their owners.  Black said she sees about three a week in the summer.

What Black and Otten say has changed, however, is the potency of the drugs the dogs are consuming.

Dr. Black said that at the start of her career in emergency veterinary medicine 15 years ago, marijuana toxicity consisted of a dog eating the end of a joint with fairly low amounts of THC. But, she said, "we got heavier and heavier toxicities over time because of medical grade marijuana and because of edibles."

As for Maizey, she was just fine a few days after her foray into canine cannabis. Though she seemed interested in imaginary balls, for now she's settled back into chasing real ones.

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