In New York City’s East Village, Whiskers Holistic Pet Care has offered pet owners alternatives to mainstream pet products since 1988. Inside, past catnip-infused toy rats and the hemp-based dog treats, is a glass cabinet filled with products derived from cannabidiol, commonly known as CBD. Randy Klein, co-owner of Whiskers, explains they’ve sold CBD products for many, many years. But it’s only in the past six months that she’s started getting at least three phone calls a day from pet owners, eager to find out what she has in stock.
“People ask me to carry different kinds of CBD products; whether it’s a cookie, or a supplement, vitamin, or a chew,” Klein tells Inverse. “Usually their animal has pain or some sort of emotional situation at home.”
The CBD business is booming. You can buy CBD that claims to help you sleep, soothe your muscles, and improve your sex life. There’s even a CBD seltzer marketed to millennials. That’s the short list. CBD’s popularity has since crossed over the human-pet divide. Surveys show that most dog owners buy CBD to treat a condition that’s been previously diagnosed by a veterinarian, like seizures, cancer, arthritis, or anxiety.
Underlying CBD’s rise in popularity is a powerful truth: People care about their pets and, in many cases, just wanted to do right by them.
There’s Nigel, a greyhound who was given CBD to deal with pain linked to bone cancer. There’s Abbey, a shepherd mix who was given CBD as a way to help her old bones, but stopped using CBD once her owners saw it made her sick. And there’s Bear, a 12-year old, hundred-pound Newfoundland-Labrador retriever mix whose life has improved immensely with CBD, says owner Greg Shoenfeld.
“He was evidently abused very badly before I rescued him,” Shoenfeld tells Inverse. “CBD has had two benefits with him: One is that it has given him relief from his arthritis, and it’s also made him a bit less anxious and a bit more likely to engage with strangers.”
Bear has been on CBD for four years. Each morning, Shoenfeld adds about 10 to 15 milligrams of Mary’s Whole Pets extra strength drops. He firmly believes that CBD has played a big part in providing Bear comfort as he ages, allowing him to still play in the snow and streams of Colorado. When Bear isn’t on CBD, he appears slower — and a little bit sadder.
Owners like Shoenfeld aren’t the radical, Birkenstock-wearing few, but an increasingly mainstream demographic with legitimate purchasing power. In a survey of 632 consumers in Colorado, 93 percent were confident that CBD pet treats were equal or better than standard medications or therapies. This confidence is reflected in sales: Pet supplies is one of the fastest growing sectors in the CBD market. According to BDS Analytics, the combined sales of CBD pet products only sold in dispensaries — so excluding pet stores — across Arizona, California, Oregon, and Nevada, amounted to $8.3 million in 2018.
The industry continues to grow, despite the fact that there’s little known about the safety and efficacy of CBD pet product.
"It is a Wild West out there."
“It is a Wild West out there,” Kogan tells Inverse.
Now she’s learning about CBD from a new perspective: She and other scientists have collaborated with HempMy Pet, a Colorado hemp company that produces CBD-infused pet products, on a clinical trial examining the impact of CBD on dogs with chronic pain linked to osteoarthritis. The 90-day study evaluated 26 dogs who had experienced pain for at least the past three months.
The study is done, and the results have been submitted to a journal, but one of the facts that’ll emerge from its publication will be about the dosage amounts used in the trial, and the quality of the CBD used. The initial results, Kogan tells me, look exciting — beyond what she thought was going to happen.
Quality is one of the essential factors that sets CBD products apart, says Marc Brannigan, co-founder of HempMyPet. Kogan agrees. Working on this project has been an eye-opening experience, says the scientist.
“I wasn’t fully aware of the false advertising and I’m even more sensitive to that now because my studies show the primary source that people are getting their information about these products from is on the websites of these products,” Kogan says.
“I just read something this morning on a site that was a blatant lie.”
Kogan expects that the industry is only going to expand over time, but what will make it grow in a sound direction is more research. Because of the shifting legal status of CBD, HempMyPet has previously relied on anecdotal evidence and testimonials from customers to inform how it adjusts dosing regimen for dogs, Brannigan tells Inverse. Brannigan acknowledges there’s a lack of education around hemp, and he’s excited to see the healing benefits he’s witnessed be confirmed with science.
Jeremy Riggle, Ph.D. is the chief scientist at a different CBD company, Mary’s Medicinals. Like HempMyPet, its hemp is grown in Colorado, and like Brannigan, Riggle is working toward offering products backed by scientific evidence.
Riggle tells Inverse that when he got to the company, “it was a little bit of a free-for-all” when it came down to deciding what products to offer. He would get ideas from salespeople who knew the market, but the process has since become more formalized. Mary’s Medicinals products today are “based on market research and based on what the science has to say,” Riggle says.
As chief scientist at Mary’s Medicinals, Riggle develops products like “Buddy Balm,” a topical skin cream, and CBD tinctures that come in different flavors — bacon, chicken; fish — and in different strengths. Mary’s Medicinals has also provided him with some funding to do clinical studies, and they’ve recently collaborated with Japanese scientists who are looking at the effects of their products on dogs who experience seizures.
“My role also includes trying to find the people who are doing these clinical studies, [and] learn what their results are, so I can further fine-tune what an appropriate dose is,” Riggle says. “Maybe we haven’t nailed down the exact dose or the exact route of administration, but the preclinical evidence is there, for sure.”
The clinical science on CBD use in animals is a handful of few, hopeful studies. A 2018 trial by Colorado State University found that in a group of 16 dogs with epilepsy, 89 percent who received CBD experienced a reduction in seizures. The study — created after its authors received frequent calls from clients and other veterinarians with questions about CBD — was a stepping stone toward a larger epilepsy trial that included 60 dogs. The results of that study will be published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association this June.
In July, Cornell University veterinary researchers announced in Frontiers in Veterinary Science more good news: CBD-based oil appears to provide therapeutic benefits to dogs with osteoarthritis. In a systematic review of 35 dogs with osteoarthritis who were already being treated for lameness at Cornell, they found that a commercially available CBD oil given twice a day significantly improved the dog’s comfort and activity levels.
The legal status of CBD remains confusing, so in turn, how comfortable veterinarians are recommending CBD to clients varies across state borders. A 2019 study led by Kogan found that, in a survey of 2,130 veterinarians, 61.5 percent felt comfortable discussing the use of CBD with their colleagues, while only 45.5 percent felt comfortable discussing it with clients.
Veterinarians in states with legalized recreational marijuana were the most likely to talk about the use of CBD to treat ailments. What’s legal for people opens the doorway for pets, it appears.
Sue Lowum, DVM, a veterinarian and associate professor at the University of Minnesota, wasn’t a part of the Cornell study, but considers it one of the few early signs that CBD holds promise for pain control. But Lowum says she legally can’t advise her Minnesotan clients on CBD products.
While the 2018 Farm Bill removed hemp-derived products from a Schedule I status, it did not legalize CBD generally. CBD marketed as a therapeutic tool won’t be legalized as interstate commerce until the FDA formally approves its use — and the agency is charged with approving and regulating drugs for animals. To date, it appears that the FDA chooses to intervene in CBD sales on a case by case basis.
When asked whether or not she would feel comfortable telling a client that CBD can help, Lowum says “absolutely not.”
“There is a lack of research on its effects as a therapeutic agent in pets,” Lowum tells Inverse. “It might help or it might not, or it might make their pet’s condition worse. We just don’t have enough information at this point to draw any legitimate conclusions.”
She argues that there’s not enough research at this point to make any conclusions about CBD products. Lowum says. “There is no regulation related to the strength, purity, and lack of contaminants of these CBD oil products, which means there is no assurance the CBD oil they purchase is safe or effective.”
CBD pet products “operate in a gray area,” says Birgit Puschner, Ph.D., DVM. She’s the dean of Michigan State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and a specialist in toxicology. Her own research has examined what questions need to be answered before veterinarians can feel confident recommending CBD.
This gray area is in part because of the chemical composition of CBD. While hemp and marijuana both originate from the Cannabis sativa plant, the difference is that “industrial hemp” contains high levels of CBD and less than 0.3 percent of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the plant’s principal psychoactive compound.
Meanwhile, CBD is not psychoactive and its toxicology profile is thought to be benign — that’s why CBD pet product manufacturers like Riggle aren’t concerned about putting products into market before rigorous testing.
“I’ve never come across any kind of allergic reaction to cannabinoids, or obviously fatal interactions,” Riggle says. “In my mind, this stuff is about as safe as drugs can get.”
On the other side of the coin, Puschner argues that CBD can’t be claimed to be an at-worst innocuous thing — until scientists get a grasp of its long-term effects. The FDA cautions that, because it hasn’t approved cannabis for any use in animals, “the agency cannot ensure the safety or effectiveness” of CBD. In turn, the FDA cautions pet-owners against CBD use.
Puschner thinks that there could be a place for CBD products in the pet store, but first experts need to answer whether it has side-effects with other drugs, among other questions.
“I think there is this appeal currently for natural alternative therapies and an assumption that natural is safer,” Puschner says. “But natural does not always equate with safe.”
She shares Kogan’s concern about the validity of what companies say they are selling. She cites preliminary studies that have confirmed the presence of other cannabinoids in CBD pet treats, including THC, and these cannabinoids may have pharmacological effects that studies that are using pure CBD are not catching. With CBD, it’s a matter of buyer-beware, say its skeptics.
“It’s kind of a Catch-22,” Puschner says. “The products are out, sales have doubled in the past couple years, and increasing. But the FDA cannot approve them because there is not enough data on safety.”
Shoenfeld — the owner of Bear, that Newfoundland-Labrador retriever mix that’s been taking CBD for four years — works for the cannabis-sales tracking company BDS Analytics. He doesn’t anticipate CBD sales disappearing any time soon. Instead, he predicts that the distribution of where people buy CBD for their pets is going to find its way into more traditional channels, where people buy things for pets.
In other words, Shoenfeld thinks it’s going to be more common for people to buy CBD at pet stores, rather than at a dispensary or online. He’s personally seen a break in tradition as well. The veterinarian he takes Bear to in Boulder is encouraging of CBD use.
“Last year I took my dog to the vet and they actually recommended that I give him CBD,” Shoenfeld said. “That caught me off guard.”
It’s pet owners like Shoenfeld that are motivating scientists to do the work, and fill the gap between knowledge and opinion. The situation is reminiscent of the conversation surrounding CBD for humans and medical marijuana, with advocates convinced by what they’ve experienced, and scientists trying to determine if those reactions can be quantified.
At Whiskers, there’s a reason why CBD is sold in a place where customers have to ask before they buy. Klein agrees that there is a place for CBD in pet wellness, but knows it’s not the panacea that a newly interested public perceives it to be.
“CBD and products like CBD should not just be sold off the shelf,” Klein says. “You need to be educated on how to use it, and what it can possibly accomplish for your pet — or yourself for that matter.”
At Whiskers, it appears they do the research for their customers, by choosing products that have a good track record, have the appropriate amount of CBD, and aren’t mixed with other ingredients. They keep products behind a counter and in a cabinet, so they can discuss with the owner about what a pet really needs.
“When something like CBD comes along, and everyone thinks it’s the miracle cure, you’ll see people who will get on the bandwagon and others that will sell it because of the money,” Klein says. “CBD is a great ingredient that can be very successfully used for different ailments. It is not a cure-all.”