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Marijuana Toxicity in Cats

Many pet owners want to know if their cat will experience any issues when inhaling second-hand pot smoke, eating marijuana brownies, or chewing on the leaves of the plant. While several cat owners out there think marijuana is just another form of catnip, it’s true that there is a drastic difference.

Catnip and Marijuana

Catnip is a plant that comes from the mint family. The perennial herb has downy leaves, purple-spotted white flowers, and a pungent smell that makes cats go crazy when smelled and sleepy when eaten. Marijuana, on the other hand, comes from a plant called Cannabis sativa. The chemical in Cannabis that produces the altered states of consciousness humans enjoy is called Delta-9 Tetrahydrocannabinol or THC.

Marijuana is sometimes prescribed for relief from pain and nausea due to chemotherapy in cancer patients, and for certain conditions in AIDS patients. However, it’s still questionable whether there is anything beneficial in the plant for feline friends. In fact, it is strongly suggested that cats do not come close to any smoke from marijuana use, or any other smoke from cigarettes, cigars, or pipes.

How Cats Are Exposed to Marijuana

The most common ways cats are exposed to marijuana is by inhaling smoke or ingesting dried marijuana.   Although people who have experimented with smoking catnip become happy and relaxed, cats should not be forced to “smoke” any substance.

Because of the cumulative effects of inhaling any kind of smoke, it is inadvisable to smoke marijuana anywhere near a cat, particularly one with asthma or other lung diseases. It’s important to be mindful of this, as humans are able to make educated decisions around topics like these, while cats are not.

In some cases, cats may nibble on the leaves and/or buds of the growing marijuana plant. Humans may also feed their cats cookies or brownies made with marijuana. This is a double whammy of injury to the cat, as the brownies and/or cookies may also contain chocolate, which is toxic to cats on its own.

Symptoms

According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), your cat may experience extreme sleepiness or excitation, hypersalivation, dilated pupils, or low blood pressure. There may also be instances of low body temperature or even death (although it’s rare). Additional symptoms most commonly observed include:

  • Uncoordination, falling over
  • Depression, sometimes alternating with agitation or anxiety
  • Vomiting
  • Bradycardia (slow heart rate)
  • Seizures, sometimes coma

If your cat demonstrates any of the symptoms above, you should take it to the veterinarian as soon as possible.

Warning

  • If you have reason to believe your cat was exposed to marijuana smoke or has ingested marijuana in any form, it’s important to mention this to the vet. Quick treatment may ameliorate the most severe symptoms, and even save your cat’s life.

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Illustration: The Spruce / Hilary Allison

Medical Marijuana for Painful Conditions

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) publishes several articles about marijuana treatments and drug monitoring programs for animals. In 2017, AVMA House of Delegates members urged the Association to develop policies and guidance around marijuana treatments at the Veterinary Information Forum.   One of the topics discussed included the increase of toxicity cases. Delegates like Dr. Dick Sullivan encouraged more research to be performed and for the national association to write to or petition the FDA in order to address marijuana issues to clients.

One article published in June 2013 tackled veterinary marijuana and pet owners who are looking to legalize marijuana for painful symptoms of the disease.   The article quoted a woman who owned a 12-year-old labrador-retriever type of dog which had a tumor of the spleen metastasized to his liver and lungs. Unfortunately, the dog had been given two months to live, and the tramadol given for the pain was not doing the job. Of course, the poor dog was obviously in pain and completely inactive.

Because California legalized marijuana for humans, the dog’s owner was able to buy a glycerin tincture of marijuana that’s sold as a pet medicine in licensed medical marijuana dispensaries throughout Los Angeles. The ​dog’s improvement in activity and the easing of pain was such that the pet owner recommended the drug to other dog owners.

Alternatives

Under the same circumstances, it’s understandable that many pet owners wouldn’t hesitate to give medical marijuana to their own cats if it were available in their state. Thus, there needs to be more research and medicines available for cats experiencing pain.

Until it’s legal for vets to prescribe Cannabis to pets, they won’t have the authority to prescribe the drug. Overconsumption of THC may also create serious health risks in cats. However, hemp-based treatments high in Cannabidiol (CBD) can help. With more research, it’s possible that there is a dosage that can help cats with conditions like Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), pancreatitis, arthritis, asthma, and cancer.  

There are HempRx vitamins and oils that can act as a medication or supplement for your cat. Additionally, there are holistic and integrative veterinarians who can work with you to find the right product for your cat.

Pet owners want to know if marijuana is toxic to cats. See whether eating the leaves of the plant or inhaling second-hand smoke makes a difference.

Does Catnip Really Make Cats ‘High’?

They may look blissful and euphoric, but what’s really happening?

Offer a pinch of catnip or a catnip-filled toy to your pet feline, and her response might be dramatic . and silly. She may roll on her back, dart wildly around, drool, lick the catnip and rub it on her face and body, or flop over and lie there purring.

Her actions seem goofy and comical, and somewhat resemble the uncoordinated and gleeful behavior of someone who’s had a little too much to drink or is pleasantly under the influence of recreational drugs.

But is that what’s happening here? Does catnip make cats high?

Catnip (Nepeta cataria) belongs to the mint family Lamiaceae, which includes aromatic herbs such as rosemary, sage, oregano and basil. The compound that plays the biggest role in the so-called catnip effect in domestic cats is produced in specialized glands in catnip’s leaves and flowers and is called nepetalactone, said Jim Simon, a professor of plant biology and co-director of the Center for Sensory Sciences and Innovation at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

“When you buy catmint [another cat-attracting plant in the Lamiaceae family] or catnip from a nursery, they’re usually hybrids sold for ornamental purpose; they usually don’t attract cats because they have very little nepetalactone,” Simon told Live Science.

There are other compounds in catnip that are similar to nepetalactone in their molecular structure, and some can even stimulate a response on their own, but nepetalactone is the strongest of the group, Simon said. Cats are attracted to the odor of nepetalactone, which binds to receptors in their noses and often produces behavior that appears euphoric.

Other compounds in catnip affect neurotransmitters, “resulting in inhibition of central nervous system activity,” said Dr. Bruce Kornreich, an associate director for education and outreach with the Feline Health Center at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine in Ithaca, New York.

Superficially, a cat’s response to catnip looks similar to a narcotic drug response in people. “They become playful and get agitated, they get excited, and then they go to sleep. But there’s no information to show that catnip is operating the same way that medical cannabis, marijuana or cocaine does,” Simon said.

Comfortably numb

In humans, consumption of alcohol, marijuana, heroin or cocaine stimulates brain cells to release mood-altering dopamine. But while cats may appear to be enjoying themselves when they’re rolling around in catnip, scientists can’t say for sure what’s happening in the cat’s brain and how it’s being affected by the plant, Kornreich told Live Science. However, some studies have shown that when cats are given compounds like naloxone that block opioid receptors in the central nervous system, catnip’s effects are minimized or even eliminated, suggesting that opioid receptors might be involved.

“A person who takes an opioid and has a euphoric effect from it; that can be blocked by naloxone. If a cat has behaviors that can be blocked by naloxone, might one of those behaviors — in the cat’s perception — be euphoria? It’s possible, but we don’t know for sure,” Kornreich said.

Not all cats respond strongly to catnip. But far more cats may be susceptible to the plant than once thought.

“It used to be believed that about two-thirds of adult cats adults respond — cheek-rubbing, rolling on the ground, vocalizing,” Kornreich told Live Science. But a study published in 2017 in the journal Behavioural Processes suggests that some cats may exhibit a less active response to the plant.

“They assume what’s called a kind of sphinx position, and they vocalize less,” Kornreich said. “The results of this study suggest that a much higher percentage of cats — if not all cats — are somehow affected by catnip.”

Even domestic cats’ wild cousins aren’t immune to catnip’s effects. Hunters have used catnip to trap cougars and mountain lions, hanging dried plants to lure the big cats with their tempting aroma, Simon said. Studies have also shown that lions, leopards and jaguars respond to the compounds found in catnip, though tigers appear to be unaffected, Kornreich said.

Cats that have an extreme response to catnip may look like they’re experiencing euphoria.