My cat Asimov is as strong and healthy as they come. With a shiny black coat and razor-sharp claws, he resembles a miniature black panther whose paw-eye coordination is spot-on when it comes to mosquitos and flies.
So you can imagine my concern when I arrived home one evening to find the little guy barely able to sit up, wobbling from side to side with each beat of his heart. I watched him walk a slow, crooked line through the kitchen, then stop to gaze at me through half-lidded eyes. An 11-pound sack of flour in my arms when I picked him up, he was docile and purring, but glassy-eyed and sedate, and he slept in my lap as I googled his symptoms. As soon as I read that tulips and lilies—like the ones growing in my backyard—are among several plants known to be fatally poisonous to cats, I gathered his limp body into a carrier and rushed him to the Pacific Veterinary Specialists emergency room on 41st Avenue, suspecting the worst.
After a thorough examination that ruled out poisoning by lily or synthetic chemicals like rat poison—he would be vomiting and pooping everywhere, said Mark Saphir, DVM—the doctor sat back and watched Asi slink under a chair, then asked calmly: “Could he have had access to any marijuana?”
I felt what I imagine is close to a mother’s shame. It was a distinct possibility. “It doesn’t take a lot for a cat,” Saphir said. “Look at how big he is compared to you. All it would take is a few crumbs on the carpet.”
Very stoned animals are something Saphir says he sees quite a bit at the ER—though much more commonly with dogs, which are notorious for having less than picky palates.
“Take him home, put on some mellow music, and you’ll have your cat back in about 8-12 hours,” said Saphir, who assured me that no, this would not leave any lasting neurological damage.
But Asi was lucky—he ate a small morsel of plant matter, and not a highly concentrated edible product like pot butter, which can be extremely dangerous. “There is a lethal dose for dogs and cats. There is not a lethal dose for humans,” says Ken Cholden, DVM, of Santa Cruz Veterinary Hospital on Soquel Drive. That lethal dose varies from animal to animal, while the most common effects of cannabis ingestion are listlessness, loss of motor coordination and balance, depression, dilated eyes, vomiting and hypothermia. About 25 percent of animals become quite distressed, with a heightened heart rate, panting and pacing. The neurotoxic effects usually last for about 12 hours, and kick in within a half hour to two hours of ingestion.
Of cannabis’ 60 or so cannabinoids, it’s tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) that’s most toxic to animals. (Perhaps relevant to people who hike in Pogonip or other areas with high homelessness with their dogs: THC exits the human body in feces, and psychoactive effects have been reported in dogs that come across—and eat—THC-laced poo, though the likelihood of a lethal dose is not probable.)
In cases that aren’t severe, the best treatment is time, says Cholden. But if a dog has consumed a large quantity of edibles within the last hour, the doctor will often induce vomiting. If it’s been more than a couple hours, activated charcoal is administered to draw out the toxins, and in the most severe cases, an intravenous lipid therapy, to soak up fat-soluble THC.
In the rare case that an animal dies, what usually kills them is respiratory depression—where their breathing becomes so shallow that it stops and they need to be put on a ventilator—rapid or slow heart rates, and seizures, says Cholden.
The moral of this story is: Pets and pot do not mix. “It’s something that a lot of times people feel ‘well I like it, my dog should like it.’ But they don’t, they’re very different. People make the decision to adjust our consciousness, but dogs and cats don’t, they’re on a different wavelength.” That means: do not blow smoke in your pet’s face (this should go without saying), and “Keep your stash secure,” says Cholden.
But along with the legalization of marijuana, medicinal oils and capsules containing cannabidiol or CBD are seeing a rapid increase in popularity for topical use on pets (in cases of skin cancer), as well as for internal consumption. While promising, Cholden cautions that dosage is key, and he has seen psychoactive effects from topical application.
Back at home I fed Asi a second dinner and put on some Brazilian jazz, which he has always liked, and he collapsed into my lap, purring the rest of the night away. He was back to his normal self by 5 a.m.