VANCOUVER — Before his owners started dosing him with a daily drop of marijuana, Garfield the cat’s nine lives were rapidly running out.
The 18-year-old feline — whose name has been changed to protect patient confidentiality — suffered from a host of painful conditions.
These included thyroid and heart disease, severe arthritis, renal failure and chronic pancreatitis, a condition that caused him to lose his appetite and experience pain in his abdomen, said veterinarian Kathy Kramer of the Vancouver Animal Wellness Hospital.
But when his owners started giving Garfield a daily drop of medical marijuana in the form of a tincture, the cat seemed to take a near-miraculous turn for the better.
Now the ailing feline, who had previously lost the desire to eat, demands his food and seems to experience less pain, Kramer said.
“He’s still got a lot of health issues, but for now he is stable and he eats like a champ,” she said.
Garfield’s owners are part of a growing movement of animal lovers looking at pot to treat pain in their sick and aging pets.
Some are medical-marijuana users themselves, and think that if the drug helped them, then maybe it could free Fido from his health problems, too.
But while many think the drug is a safe and natural alternative to other painkillers, some veterinarians caution that more research is needed before they can start recommending it to pet owners.
Kramer said she is asked by clients several times a week about trying medical marijuana as a treatment option for pets.
When Garfield’s owners told her they were trying it on their aging pet, Kramer said she couldn’t recommend the drug, as there are no veterinary guidelines on prescribing it for animals.
But realizing the owners were going to try it regardless, Kramer said she needed to ensure they were doing it safely.
“This is something that the owners were going to do with or without me,” she said. “I just helped adjust the dose for them.”
Through trial and error, Kramer said the owners eventually found the appropriate amount to give Garfield.
“We’re running a fine balance of keeping him comfortable without keeping him sedated,” she said.
But the treatment doesn’t come without risks, said Kramer — the biggest being the possibility of overdose.
In Vancouver, where marijuana is more commonplace than in many other cities, Kramer said accidental marijuana toxicity in pets is a serious problem. Symptoms of overdose could include difficulty walking, dribbly urine and an irregular heartbeat.
“Typically, they’re super stoned,” said Kramer. “If we get to them fast enough and make them vomit, the number of animals that actually die from it are quite low.”
Seeing how well the drug has helped Garfield, however, Kramer said she hopes medical marijuana will eventually be a recognized treatment for pets, especially as pain medications for animals are limited compared to those available to humans.
The pain drugs that do exist for animals often come with a host of side-effects, she said, adding that they can also be incredibly costly, with some clients paying upward of $200 a month for their pet’s pain pills.
Pain management for animals has come far in the past decade, she said, “but it needs to continue to evolve.”
As well, Kramer said, veterinary guidelines need to be established before she would feel comfortable recommending the drug.
“If we can find something that works with fewer side effects ... I think, why not?” she said. “As far as us trying to actually prescribe it, I imagine there’s going to be some red tape.”
Some other veterinarians contacted by The Province agreed with Kramer’s views but refused to speak publicly, mostly for fear of public and professional backlash, and the possibility of being investigated by the College of Veterinarians of B.C.
Requests for comment from the college were not immediately returned.
Although courts have ruled that Canadians have a constitutional right to use marijuana for medical reasons, Kramer said she is unsure how the legal framework would work for allowing veterinarians to prescribe the drug for pets.
Where pet owners would get medical marijuana is another possible hurdle, but dispensaries — such as the one where Garfield’s owners got his pot — could be an option, she said.
Some Vancouver dispensaries already report seeing clients ask about treating their pets with the drug. At the Medical Cannabis Dispensary in Vancouver’s West End, one of its members was a dog that had terminal cancer.
Before the dog’s death, manager Dori Dempster said, its owners were relieved to see their pet get relief in its final days.
“They were absolutely pleased with how their pet responded and we were able to bring a lot of comfort,” said Dempster.
Seeing sick pets rebound after being given medical marijuana also pushed Massachusetts-based animal behaviour consultant Darlene Arden to join the fight advocating on behalf of animals “who have no voice of their own.”
Arden said she wishes a treatment option like medical marijuana had been available to ease the pain and suffering of her Yorkshire terrier when he fell ill 15 years ago with chronic pancreatitis.
“If an animal is sick and looks to its owner for help, why can’t we help them?” she asked.
That’s the question often asked by Los Angeles veterinarian Dr. Doug Kramer, who took on the role of advocating for pot-for-pets in the United States after using it on his Siberian husky Nikita, who died of cancer.
In her final days, Nikita was in significant pain and didn’t respond well to pain medication, the side-effects of which made her groggy. Kramer said he faced a tough choice between euthanasia or trying something radically different.
“She was just lying down, staring off into space,” he said. “Honestly, you feel helpless and at that point, you’re willing to try anything to make your family member feel better.”
After clients told him about using medical marijuana on their own pets, Kramer decided to research the drug. After Nikita was given a small dose, she stopped whimpering and was able to greet him at the door again when he came home.
Her appetite also quickly returned, and she started to regain the weight she had lost, he said.
“Within the first dose, she was up and looking through the trash bins for food,” he said.
Although it wasn’t a cure, Kramer credits medical marijuana for giving him an extra six weeks with Nikita, as well as improving her quality of life.
Now, the holistic veterinarian said he often gets emails from all over, including Canada, from pet owners looking for vets who would be open-minded about trying medical marijuana for their pets.
In the U.S., marijuana is still classified as an illicit drug under federal law and is not approved for prescription as medicine, although 20 states as well as the District of Columbia approve and regulate its medical use.
Kramer said he does not prescribe or recommend medical marijuana to his clients, but is just “trying to provide information and guidance because there is no framework in place for veterinarians.”
Many owners are already using it to treat their pets, but without a vet’s supervision they run the risk of overdosing, he said.
“They’re well-intentioned but they have no guidance whatsoever because it’s a taboo subject just to talk about it,” he said.
Although Vancouver’s Kramer is offering advice to Garfield’s owners while they treat him, she said she is concerned about putting her veterinary licence in jeopardy.
Seeing how well medical marijuana worked for him, however, pushed her to speak out about the need for more research.
While Kramer has seen cats make remarkable recoveries, for the feline to be faring so well at such an advanced stage of illness left her “amazed.”
“It’s got to be more than a coincidence,” she said. “I don’t think it’s hurting him, and that I can say 100 per cent.”