CHICAGO — Pot brownies may be a fun weekend treat for you, but for your dog they could be deadly.
More "pot dogs" who've eaten raw marijuana buds or pot edibles made with green butter, like brownies, are visiting Chicago's animal emergency rooms, experts say. And as marijuana legalization becomes more common, vets are seeing more pot-sick dogs than ever.
When dogs ingest marijuana, they typically become lethargic, have breathing problems and have trouble walking. The smaller the animal (and the more marijuana they ingest), the more severe the symptoms, including seizures.
Alisa Hauser talks about the risks when dogs get into your stash.
Roscoe Village-based MedVet reported a spike in such cases in June. Typically, the hospital sees five to 10 cases of canines eating marijuana monthly, but in June it saw 20 dogs suffering from marijuana toxicity, and two more over the Fourth of July weekend, according to Dr. Jayme Hoffberg.
"We have seen a decent amount in the last month, but I don't know if that is a true trend," Hoffberg said last week at the hospital, 3123 N. Clybourn Ave.
Data from the Downstate Urbana-based Animal Poison Control Center, run by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, showed a 32 percent increase in pot ingestion calls to its poison control hotline in 2015.
Last year, the national hotline got 714 marijuana calls, up from 539 in 2014. From those calls, Illinois was tied for ninth with Virginia in terms of numbers of calls placed by pet owners, a spokeswoman for ASPCA said.
California, New York and Pennsylvania were the top three states for number of pot-related calls from pet owners.
At VCA Chicago North Animal Hospital, 3631 N. Elston Ave., Dr. Lauren Jakubowski said that most cases of marijuana toxicity are from pets accidentally eating the substance, usually in an owner's home.
"Usually, we have a high degree of suspicion, or the pet owner will actually state that their dog ate these items," Jakubowski said.
Treatment costs can range from a few hundred dollars for an outpatient visit to a few thousand for overnight care that might require intravenous fluids to help flush out the toxin and maintain hydration and blood flow. More extreme cases require a mechanical ventilator.
Hoffberg described the condition of a female Akita who ate several chocolate pot brownies as "worrisome," and said she was only taking two to four breaths per minute. A healthy dog's range is 15 to 60 breaths per minute.
"She appeared to be normal in the morning when her owners left for work. But when they got home she was quiet and wouldn't eat. She then was unable to stand," Hoffberg said.
After "multiple doses" of the drug Intralipid — a fluid that has a high fat content — along with being put on a respirator, the Akita become more responsive and, after an overnight stay, was "able to sit up, eat, and walk with support," Hoffberg said.
Though symptoms usually subside within 24 hours, the effects can last for four or five days since tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC — the main ingredient in marijuana — is stored in a dog's fat cells just as it is with humans.
Medical marijuana is legal in 23 states, including Illinois, so dog owners are more likely to be up front with doctors if their pets have consumed the drug, according to Chicago Pet Sitters, which blogged about the recent spike in pot-related calls to ASPCA's animal poison hotline.
A 2012 article in the Journal of Vet Emergency and Critical Care examined trends in marijuana toxicity and concluded that in a five-year period at two Colorado animal hospitals, the incidents of marijuana toxicity increased by 400 percent after the legalization of marijuana there.
Two of the 76 Colorado dogs with "known marijuana exposure" in the study died. Both of those dogs had ingested butter made with medical-grade marijuana in baked products, the article's authors reported.
In "A Veterinary Guide to Marijuana," a Washington state doctor observed that symptoms of marijuana overdoses in dogs have become more extreme as stronger marijuana becomes the norm.
"Especially in the solid form, such as brownies, cookies, candy and cakes, we all know our self-respecting Labrador retrievers will not stop at just one," wrote Washington's Dr. Donna Menching.
Hoffberg said the increase in what her clinic informally calls "pot dogs" could be due to more awareness of vets to test for it and compliance of owners to admit to it.
"Most owners are not all that surprised, as they say there is some in the house," Hoffberg said. "There is more of a surprise that their pet was able to get it because they keep it in what they think is a safe location. Animals are crafty; they find things they shouldn't eat throughout the house."
The most obvious clinical sign of THC ingestion is ataxia, which looks like "a drunken staggering kind of walk," she said. Other signs include shaking and twitching.
Urine dribbling and incontinence is also fairly common, along with constricted or small pupils, Hoffberg said.
Dr. Jill Keller at Premier Veterinary Group, at 3927 W. Belmont Ave. in Avondale, said the number of suspected marijuana toxicity cases has been "fairly consistent," with about one or two each week.
"We do not push owners or test for exposure, so there may be more, and none of these cases are confirmed unless they admit to it," Keller said.
Keller encouraged dog owners to be honest with their veterinarians. She said the cases are not shared with law enforcement.
"In severe exposure, the pet will need supportive care and hospitalization — and this can be emotionally and financially taxing on an owner — so if the owner just admits there may be an exposure, this can save them time, stress and potentially money," Keller said.
Currently, rodent poisons pose a greater risk to dogs than pot, at least based on Premier Vet's clientele.
Keller said that while she does not have specific numbers, Premier Vet sees "two or three cases" of rat poison ingestion per week and far more raisin/grape and sugar substitute xylitol ingestion than pot cases.
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