Cannabis is like candy to dogs—but also highly toxic. Since legalized, it is littering parks, trails and sidewalks, along with discarded opioids.
AS ADRIAN HICKIN held his apparently lifeless Vizsla puppy he racked his brains trying to figure out what could have happened to two-month-old Finnigan.
The family, with their new puppy, returned home after an on-leash walk along the waterfront in Brentwood Bay and a brief pee-stop in a commercial parking lot with convenient grass patches. Finnigan, like most puppies, was rambunctious when he got home, but when he reached the kitchen he started to rock and wobble.
“Our first thinking was that he was having some sort of stroke or embolism so my partner put him in a blanket and held him, but then he just went completely lifeless. He was completely flaccid. We could see he was breathing, but when you picked up his paw, there was absolutely no response,” Hickin said.
“We were distraught. We had only had the puppy home for two weeks and this happened. . . We thought it was neurological and something bad had happened to his brain.. . . He was so little, he was only 14 pounds,” he said.
As Hickin and his partner Melanie drove a still-catatonic Finnigan to Westcoast Animal Veterinary Emergency Specialty Hospital (WAVES) they phoned in a description of the symptoms to a veterinarian and the first question was whether the dog had ingested marijuana.
No one in the household uses marijuana, so the question was jolting and the initial gut response was that it was not possible, but the vet then explained that it is common for dogs to pick up marijuana when out for walks and the hospital needed to know so Finnigan could receive the correct treatment, Hickin said.
As COVID rules were still in effect, Finnigan was carried into the hospital while the couple waited outside for test results and wondering if their puppy was going to make it out alive.
Finnigan as a puppy (he’s a few months older now)
“They finally came out and said they had tested his urine and it was marijuana, but it was also opioids—it was the stuff that is killing people—and that was when we got very, very afraid,” Hickin said.
The veterinarians gave Finnigan a shot of Naloxone and, as everyone waited to see if it would bring him around, Hickin was told that the hospital is seeing similar cases almost every day.
“[The vet] said it’s not just picking up a roach, people are doing edibles and they drop them and they are filled with THC. The other thing is people get high and they’re out in the bush or whatever and they defecate and the dogs will eat it—which is not uncommon for dogs to do,” he said.
Finnigan was put on an IV, given activated charcoal, which can prevent a poison from being absorbed by the body, and kept in the hospital overnight as staff kept watch.
By noon the next day Finnigan was awake and, a few hours later, was on the road to recovery.
The story was similar for Brentwood Bay resident Maureen Garrity and her Sheltie puppy Berri, who was three months old when she went for an on-leash walk at Rithet’s Bog.
“That night she started vomiting and had projectile diarrhea and then she couldn’t walk. She was like a drunken sailor and then her head started wobbling. I knew it wasn’t a seizure, but it was very, very distressing,” said Garrity, who called Central Victoria Animal Hospital.
Garrity spent 15 minutes on the phone describing Berri’s symptoms and answering questions and the vet then concluded that her dog had ingested THC, the psychoactive compound in cannabis that produces the sensation of being high.
“I said ‘that’s not possible. I don’t smoke it, none of my friends smoke it. There’s no way she would have access to it,’” Garrity said.
The vet asked Garrity if she had been in a public place that day and explained that, since marijuana became legal in 2018 it has become increasingly common for dogs to pick up pot and THC is so toxic to dogs that, especially if they are young or small, it takes very little to make them ill.
The saving grace for Berri was the extent of the diarrhea and vomiting, which effectively cleaned her system of the poison, but the incident has shaken Garrity.
Maureen Garrity with Berri as a puppy—again, she’s bigger now.
“I felt like a terrible dog owner and I was shocked when I started to tell people what had happened, how many people said ‘oh, that happened to my dog.’ That’s when I began to realize that this is something that the public needs to be aware of,” she said.
Dr Tin Wai Kwan of Helmcken Veterinary Clinic was an emergency veterinarian before opening up her clinic five years ago and said the cases of THC poisoning are a dime a dozen. “I have literally seen hundreds over the last few years,” she said.
Since legalization, people are smoking joints in public places, whether in popular spots such as the Galloping Goose Trail or someone flicking a roach off a balcony, and all too often, they are picked up by dogs, Kwan said.
When it is uncertain what the dog has eaten, owners in BC are often initially referred by local veterinarians to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Animal Poison Control Centre.
In the first two months of 2019, as some states legalized marijuana, the centre reported a 765 percent increase in marijuana cases over the previous year.
Edibles are an increasing problem as the concentration of THC is higher and, while a person might eat one brownie, a dog will eat the whole pan, APCC medical director Tina Wismer said in a video.
Often it is not worth testing the dogs as signs of pot ingestion are usually obvious and can include difficulty walking, excessive drooling and dribbling urine, Kwan said.
“They act really weird, sort of a little freaked out or stoned,” said Kwan, adding that many owners think their dog is having a stroke.
The good news is that most pot ingestions do not end in death, but symptoms depend on the amount consumed, she said.
If the dog gets into a big bag someone has stashed in the house, it’s a problem, while eating a single roach is less severe.
“The problem is, as an owner, you don’t really know how much your dog ate,” said Kwan, who recommends that, even if the symptoms are mild, the owner should get help from a veterinarian.
“Not all toxins are the same. There may be subtle differences so at least you can get a diagnosis and then talk about treatment options which can range from monitoring at home to intravenous fluids to help flush it out. If it is early on, a vet can help induce vomiting,” Kwan said.
But why would a dog eat a roach someone has flicked into the bush?
“It’s like the best-tasting candy you can imagine. They will 100 percent eat it,” Kwan said.
Dr Adrian Walton of Dewdney Animal Hospital in Maple Ridge, who sees a steady stream of stoned pets, agrees that dogs find marijuana irresistible.
“It’s their version of catnip. They absolutely love the stuff. They will find even the smallest amount because they love the smell of it and it is incredibly common,” he said.
“If we have a dog coming in stumbling, the first thing we say to the owner is ‘did your dog get into pot?’”
The common reaction is “absolutely not,” either because people don’t want to admit they were careless with their stash at home or because they have no idea the dog picked up something outside.
“The simple fact is we don’t care [how it happened]. We just want to treat your dog. We’re not going to report people, just tell us what your dog got into,” Walton said.
Many people don’t understand that their stash has to be secured, not out on the counter, and those smoking in the park often have little understanding about how it affects dogs, he said.
“It debilitates dogs for much longer than people and often, if it’s a severe intoxication with a small dog like a Pomeranian or a Chihuahua, these animals have to be hospitalized for 24 or 48 hours and the cost is expensive,” Walton said.
Asked whether the CRD can or is doing anything around the toxic debris, Jeff Leahy, Capital Regional District senior parks manager, said no smoking is allowed in regional parks and that includes marijuana. Signs make the rules clear and park rangers monitor visitors.
Therefore, education is the obvious answer, but people are accustomed to throwing away cigarette butts and see no difference with their marijuana or other drugs, said Walton, who has had at least a couple of cases where fentanyl has been involved and, like many vets now keeps Narcan—medication used to reverse the effects of opioids—on hand.
“We need people not to be idiots….Pack it in, pack it out. We have to retrain people [to understand] this is not a safe product,” said Dr Walton, adding that, in addition to dog problems, there is little information on the effect on wildlife.
Domestic cats, however, are not usually interested.
For Garrity one of the most shocking discoveries was the number of non-dog-owners who laughed off the incident with Berri and told her that the dog was probably having a good time.
“I’m telling you, my dog was not having a good time,” she said.
“It was awful and it took her a good week for her digestive system to go back to normal,” she said.
Hickin found that one of the lingering problems was figuring out which areas were safe for dog-walking, but, now the family has moved to the Highlands and are taking more remote walks, the anxiety is fading, he said.
“But I am still quite gun shy,” he said.
Judith Lavoie is a freelance journalist who enjoys exploring stories about the natural world.