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FORT COLLINS — Riley lumbered into the laboratory and greeted scientists with hefty, loving nudges and sloshes of slobber.
The 135-pound Newfoundland is a favorite at the Colorado State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital, where she’s among a few dozen pooches participating in one of the first scientific clinical trials assessing the efficacy of cannabidiol in treating certain canine ailments.
The non-psychoactive cannabis compound isn’t just hailed for its potential medicinal benefits in humans — the anecdotal evidence emerging from legal marijuana states has some pet owners wondering if CBD could be a life-improving medicine for man’s best friend. In Colorado, CBD-rich whole plant hemp extracts already are available for purchase online or at the neighborhood pet shop down the street.
However, scientists and veterinarians caution that clinical research is lacking, dogged by complications — notably marijuana’s Schedule I status and CBD’s shaky legal standing as it relates to another more familiar cannabis compound: psychoactive delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which can be toxic to animals.
CSU veterinary neurologist Dr. Stephanie McGrath began fielding queries about CBD’s therapeutic powers for pets after Colorado legalized recreational marijuana and cultivation of industrial hemp in 2012. Owners and vets alike called to inquire about the safety and efficacy of administering CBD to pups for everything from sore hips, to seizures, to anxiety caused by fireworks and thunderstorms.
What McGrath heard was extremely disappointing, she said. Some pet owners were dosing animals with their own edibles or other medical marijuana products procured to treat human ailments.
“That, as you can imagine, is not safe at all,” she said.
In addition to her concerns with the DIY nature of the dosing, McGrath said she was skeptical of what was being packaged and sold in pet stores. No qualified, peer-reviewed scientific studies had been conducted on CBD products for pets, she realized.
“Looking at it from a scientific standpoint and as a doctor, I felt really uncomfortable with the products being offered,” she said.
Whether it’s THC-laden marijuana or industrial hemp with traces of that illicit compound, cannabis is a Schedule I substance. The uncertain legal landscape surrounding CBD oil — even the hemp-derived variety — has stymied studies for humans and animals alike.
Its murky legal status doesn’t just impede access to the whole hemp plant extract, said Michael San Filippo, spokesman for the American Veterinary Medical Association. It also makes it difficult for scientists to receive the blessing — and funding — for CBD research from major academic institutions wary of crossing federal boundaries, he said.
As such, the science isn’t there yet on aspects such as CBD’s effectiveness and dosing, San Filippo said.
“There are a lot of unanswered questions,” he said.
Avoiding the placebo effect
A CSU research team led by McGrath is starting to provide some answers for pet owners and veterinarians.
In March 2016, the CSU team completed work on a safety, toxicity and pharmacokinetic study of CBD in healthy dogs that was the first to demonstrate the compound was measurable in the blood and safe enough to warrant studies in a clinical population.
For the study, 30 research beagles were given high doses of a CBD-rich oil derived from Colorado hemp and produced by Fort Collins-based Applied Basic Science Corp. (ABSC). Of the three dosing methods tested — capsule, tincture and transdermal cream — tincture showed the most promise for safety and measurement in the bloodstream, McGrath said.
Side effects included diarrhea and an elevated liver enzyme, she said, noting that there were no blood test abnormalities that prompted the removal of a dog from the study.
The results, currently under peer review, were enough for CSU to green-light clinical trials.
Last November, CSU researchers began enrolling dogs in two clinical trials measuring the effectiveness of ABSC’s Colorado Hemp Oil, or C.H.O., in treating symptoms of osteoarthritis and epilepsy.
The CSU studies are conducted with a double-blind method, considered the most reliable way to eliminate the power of suggestion since neither the researcher nor the test subject (which, in this case, also includes the pet owner) knows whether they have received a placebo.