Why Your Vet Can't Talk About Cannabis for Pets

Ever try to discuss cannabis with your fur baby’s doctor and it seemed like the cat had their tongue?

There are some good reasons for this, which we’ll dig into in this post. We’ll also go over what your vet can help you with when it comes to cannabis for your pet. And, we’ll close with some tips on how to open the cannabis  lines of communication with your vet.

If you’d like more foundational information on cannabis for pets, we recommend reading our post CBD for Dogs & Cats [A Guide for Pet Parents].

Dr. Gary Richter, MS, DVM on the potential benefits of cannabis for pets and GBL Founder Maria Calabrese on the importance of opening their ability to discuss cannabis with pet owners.

Mums the Word 

If the subject on the exam table is cannabis, don’t be surprised if your vets’ inner basenji (a famously “silent” dog breed) takes over.

That’s because vets and cannabis have a complicated relationship. Many vets are interested in discussing cannabis but are apprehensive to do so. Here are the three biggest reasons why.

#1 The Lingering Legal Question 

Even if you live in a very cannabis-friendly state where recreational sales are legal, the fact is that marijuana is illegal on a federal level. So, as frustrating as the law may be, it makes sense that vets can’t openly discuss it.

But what about hemp-derived CBD containing 0.3% THC? After all, it is considered to be a legal substance per the 2018 Farm Bill. 

Hold your horses — we’ve got some legal layers to unpack:

  • The US Food and Drug Administration has not yet approved CBD or any products containing Farm Bill-approved hemp for use in drugs, supplements, or food products for animals. 
  • Then there’s the American Veterinary Medical Association which prohibits therapeutic products for animals that have not been approved by the FDA, which creates legal risks for veterinarians who recommend CBD products.

As you can see, the situation is not as black and white as a Dalmatian’s spots.

Just because CBD’s Farm-Bill-friendly and in certain states it’s okay to throw your dog a CBD bone now and again doesn’t mean your vet’s at liberty to have a loose-lipped discussion about cannabis in any form with you.

In many states, veterinarians are legally prohibited or severely restricted from talking about cannabis for your dog or cat (or horse for that matter). 

Plus, the state legislative landscape has frequent tectonic shifts. As such, vets need to keep tabs on current federal regulations as well as state and local jurisdictional rules — even in states and local jurisdictions that have legalized certain forms of cannabis.

Many vets are awaiting a time when they have legal coverage that offers the same protections that physicians and osteopaths are afforded in states where cannabis is legal.

#2 The Knowledge Gap

Despite years of school and training, many vets don’t feel knowledgeable enough to give advice on cannabis. In fact, less than half of all vets reported being comfortable and confident discussing cannabis with their clients. And the rate dropped for recently-graduated vets and vets in states where cannabis is more restricted.(1)

The endocannabinoid system, plant-based medicine, and cannabis aren’t standard fare for veterinary school curricula after all.(2) Plus, the proliferation of cannabis legalization — and hemp-derived CBD (Thanks, 2018 Farm Bill!) — is relatively recent. As counterintuitive as it may seem, age-old cannabis, in its various forms, is still a new-fangled thing when it comes to modern veterinary medicine applications. So, clinicians, researchers, and pet parents are continuing to [try to] figure it all out.

Furthermore, cannabis’s legal status can be confusing and subjective. Some vets expressed uncertainty about what they could and couldn’t discuss. It can be difficult knowing where the line in the sand is and vets don’t want to risk getting in trouble. (FYI — Penalties for vets who break the law or violate their federal and state's licensing board's policies on cannabis can be steep, including losing their license.)

#3 The Dearth of Data

In tandem with the knowledge gap is the shortage of hard evidence on cannabis’s uses and benefits for animal health and wellness.

Sure, there are volumes of anecdotal accounts and observational records. But vets are doctors, a group of people who tend to want the validation that only science can provide. And the American Veterinarian Medical Association and state veterinarian boards are even more conservative.

Therefore, in addition to expanded legal coverage, some vets are also waiting for more clinical data to further prove the safety and efficacy of cannabis for pets. Cannabis research is underway and ongoing after years of prohibition — but is still in its puppy or kitty years.  

The slow pace of research and evidence-gathering is likely to continue until we end the federal prohibition of cannabis. With the short leash and choke collar of current and inconsistent laws, cannabis study is reined in pretty tightly.

At any rate, it’s worth paying attention to cannabis trials and studies and their resulting papers and findings. As we accumulate significant qualitative and quantitative empirical data, vets will be better equipped to advise clients with fact-backed details.

No Rx for Rex

Recommending or prescribing cannabis (CBD, THC or combinations thereof) for animals is a separate thing altogether from just discussing the cannabinoid.

Sometimes, even when veterinarians are allowed to talk about cannabis, they’re still not permitted to recommend or prescribe it for your favorite family feline or canine companion.(3) Doing so would put them in a legal doghouse.

And, again, sometimes your vet just doesn’t feel qualified to counsel you on cannabis because this isn’t an area of expertise. Your vet’s probably invested in your pet’s well-being almost as much as you are — they don’t want to give you incomplete or incorrect information that could harm your bundle of fluff.

In this scenario, your vet may still be able to make certain suggestions — particularly in regards to dosing — or warn against giving your pet cannabis (e.g., if CBD, THC, or any cannabinoids would interfere with your pet’s other meds). It’s also possible that your vet can guide you to high-quality resources to learn more about cannabis for pets.

Except Maybe Epidiolex….

Unless a drug is explicitly restricted, vets are usually at liberty to prescribe FDA-approved human medications to animals — even if the drug isn’t intended for non-human patients.(4) This is called extra-label or off-label use and it’s very common. The vet just needs to be able to justify the prescription.

Since Epidiolex is the only FDA-approved CBD med on the market, and no restrictions have been placed on it, vets could theoretically give it to their animal patients who have seizure disorders.

And a Few Synthetic Cannabis Drugs….

The FDA has also approved three synthetic cannabis-based medications for human use.(5)

  • Marinol (dronabinol)
  • Syndros (dronabinol)
  • Cesamet (nabilone)

These drugs are only available via prescription from a qualified healthcare practitioner.

There’s little to no information about these meds being used in veterinary contexts. However, one study did indicate that nabilone may be toxic to dogs.(6)

A veterinarian smiles while petting a border collie.

How To Discuss Cannabis with Your Veterinarian

Despite legal limitations on cannabis conversations, you can and should still broach the subject with your vet.

If your pet is facing health issues that you think cannabis might help with, or where Western medicine does not have a solution, it’s important to keep your vet in the loop. A quick consult before trying cannabis could prevent problems like drug interactions or boost effectiveness by fine-tuning the care plan.

Cannabis Convo Caveats

Bear in mind that the information you get from your vet probably has its limitations. And it’s through no fault of your vet — so don’t swat them on the nose with a rolled-up paper!

Take dosing for example. Getting the right dose is paramount for providing safe and effective care for people’s pets. And, in states where vets are not permitted to discuss or recommend cannabis, trying to help their patients zero in on the proper amounts of cannabis for animals is a huge source of frustration for many vets.

Animals’ endocannabinoid systems aren’t like the human ECS. This means everything from dosing to the effects of cannabis is different. Given the legal and research landscape vets are operating in, they may not have all the details pinned down for you, or if they do, their tongues might be tied.

Tips for Talking about Cannabis with Your Vet

So, how to embark upon this tricky — but vital — subject in a constructive manner, especially when it comes to dosing? Here are some suggestions to get that chew ball rolling.

  1. Build rapport with your vet beforehand. It’s a lot easier to assess your vet's willingness to have difficult exchanges if you and your vet have already established a good working relationship in which open dialogue is the norm.
  2. Familiarize yourself with your state’s laws in advance. Go in to your appointment knowing what your vet can and can’t discuss and recommend, based on state regulations.
  3. Ask questions. Come with a list of questions related to how cannabis might play a role in your pet’s care regimen.
  4. Know your “why.” Be ready to articulate the reasons you’re interested in trying cannabis for your pet’s health concerns.
  5. Do some preliminary research. Having a pulse on the fundamentals of cannabis for pets (or more specifically, the species of animal you have) will facilitate a more intelligent and useful conversation, within the confines of your vet’s willingness and legal ability to discuss.
  6. Practice your talking points. Running scripts through before your appointment can help ensure you don’t forget any key aspects you want your vet’s input on.
  7. Request recommendations for more options. If you live in a state where veterinarians aren’t permitted to talk about cannabis options, ask your vet for alternative resources — e.g., a referral to a vet in a veterinary-cannabis-friendly state, a vet tech, etc.

Follow these tips and you stand a good chance of getting the vital info you need to make informed cannabis decisions on behalf of your beloved pet.

Your Vet Has a “Just Say No” Stance

Let’s say your vet is allowed to hash out cannabis with you but — for whatever reason — doesn’t want to. Their mouth is muzzled on the subject, you might say. What now?

If you’re still interested and determined to gain cannabis knowledge to better inform how you care for your pet, your vet’s lack of words doesn’t have to be the last word on this topic. It’s within your prerogative to seek out another vet who can help you. There are plenty of vets who are comfortable discussing cannabis and who are more open to alternative therapies in general.

Conversation Starters: Cannabis, Your Vet, Your Pet & You

Cannabis may potentially contribute to promoting your pet's overall health and well-being. But your vet might not be eager to chat about it.

Your vet may not readily discuss cannabis due to one (or more!) of the following reasons:

  • In your state, it’s illegal for vets to talk about/recommend cannabis to clients.
  • Your vet’s not well-informed enough on the topic.
  • Your vet’s holding out for more data and proof of safety and efficacy.
  • The federal government also plays a role in regulating veterinary medicine practices through the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Each have jurisdicition over the use of drugs and biologics in animals. Their legal landscape regarding cannabis and pets is evolving, and new regulations and policies are expected in the future.

Despite the potential for your vet’s reticence on the subject, you should still feel empowered to advocate for your pet’s health and well-being. As such, don’t hesitate to try to start a conversation with your pet’s doctor about cannabis.

Chances are your vet will still be able to — at the very least — point you in the direction of reliable resources on cannabis for pets. And, if you’re serious about trying cannabis for your pet, you can always find another vet, one who’s knowledgeable and willing to discuss the option.

As laws change and our understanding of how cannabis may help animals grows, it’s quite paw-ssible that vets will enjoy more freedom and confidence to talk about and recommend cannabis — and maybe even formulate awesome products — in the future.

With so many people using or interested in using cannabis for their pets' health and wellbeing, it's essential that veterinarians are able to help animals without risking their license. Pet owners should make their state and federal legislators aware that they want clarity surrounding laws around vets ability to explain cannabis options and best practices with their patients.

FAQs Buzzin’ Through the Hive

Why do vets not recommend cannabis?

The three biggest reasons are: legal prohibition, lack of knowledge of cannabis, and desire for more study/evidence of cannabis’s safety and efficacy in animals.

Can a vet prescribe cannabis for pets?

Vets are typically free to prescribe any FDA-approved human drug to an animal for extra-label (aka off-label) use. Accordingly, a vet may be able to prescribe, for example, Epidiolex — the only FDA-approved CBD drug to date — for pets.

Should you try cannabis for your pet?

This is a judgement call you have to make for yourself, based on due diligence and anecdotal wisdom. Assess your pet’s situation, do some research to see if cannabis might help with your pet’s issues, and consult your vet. Then weigh all the info to decide what course of action makes the most sense.

References

  1. Kogan, L, et al. (2019). US Veterinarians’ Knowledge, Experience, and Perception Regarding the Use of Cannabidiol for Canine Medical Conditions. Frontiers in Veterinary Science.
  2. Karpowich, K. (2021). Why Your Vet Won’t Talk to You About CBD. Wag out Loud.
  3. Burke, A. (2021). How to Talk to Your Veterinarian About CBD Oil for Dogs. American Kennel Club.
  4. (2021). FDA Regulation of Cannabis and Cannabis-Derived Products: Q&A. U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
  5. (2023). FDA and Cannabis: Research and Drug Approval Process. U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
  6. Hanasono, G. (1987). A species comparison of the toxicity of nabilone, a new synthetic cannabinoid. Fundamental and Applied Toxicology.
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About the Author

Green Bee Life founder Maria Calabrese author photo

Maria Calabrese

Maria thrives off giving a voice to the cannabis industry's most innovative brands and community, while helping them get the exposure they deserve to unleash the full potential of cannabis as a wellness solution.

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