The legalization of recreational cannabis in Oregon brought a significant increase in marijuana poisoning in animals, a more serious problem than it sounds.

Cannabis poisoning in dogs can leave them comatose and cause extreme nausea, among other things. Don't worry, though, this pup is just sleepy. 

Cannabis poisoning in dogs can leave them comatose and cause extreme nausea, among other things. Don’t worry, though, this pup is just sleepy. 

Tassidy Doyle/Flickr

Dr. Adam Stone, a veterinarian at Bend Veterinary Specialty & Emergency Center, was working at a Portland animal hospital when recreational cannabis retail sales became legal.

“We saw more cases of marijuana toxicity in the first couple months of 2016 than we had in the previous year,” Stone, 31, said. “There was a pretty severe increase once it was legalized recreationally.”

Central Oregon is no exception.

“We see anywhere from one to three in a 12-hour shift that present with signs of toxicity that could be attributed to marijuana,” Stone said of the Emergency Clinic in Bend, where he now works. “We usually see it solely in dogs. There’s a very classic subset of signs that we see in dogs. Cats [are] not nearly as common, although sometimes it’s suspected.”

Pet Poison Helpline, a 24-hour animal poison control service, reported a 448 percent increase in cannabis cases over the past six years.

Dr. Curt Nitschelm, a vet at the Redmond Veterinary Clinic, said “it’s definitely more frequent with the recent laws. It’s usually dogs, and it’s usually the edible products. From what I understand they have a higher concentration of marijuana or the active ingredient.”

The psychoactive ingredient in cannabis that affects pets is a cannabinoid called tetrahydrocannabinol, commonly referred to as THC.

“Most of the cases that we see, it’s been the higher concentrated products like butter, and edibles, brownies, those types of things,” Nitschelm, 59, said.

But it’s not just baked goods and oils that can harm hounds. Dogs can get high from raw marijuana leaves and stems. While THC has to be smoked or dissolved in fat in order for human bodies to absorb it and feel its effects, dogs can simply eat part of a bud and become intoxicated. And they don’t need much.

“In rare cases, the ash from a joint can cause some dogs to react,” Stone said. “Someone will toss out a roach, or the end of a joint, and a dog on a hike will just snack on that. And just that little, tiny quantity — in some cases maybe a quarter of a gram, a tenth of a gram — can cause severe signs in some animals.”

Symptoms can be frightening and unfamiliar. Nitschelm said dogs on the drug can be “blase all the way up to non-responsive.”

Tandi Ngwenyama, a clinical instructor of emergency and small animal critical care at Washington State University, has seen a number of cannabis toxicity cases throughout her career, especially since recreational legalization. Ngwenyama, 35, said dogs poisoned with marijuana have abnormal mental activity.

“They might be a little bit more depressed or agitated; they’ll walk around like they’re drunk,” she said. “Also pretty classic is they seem to be dribbling urine.”

Depending on the concentration of THC consumed, affected dogs can breathe slowly and ineffectively, Ngwenyama said. They may even become comatose.

“When we see a dog that comes in and it’s lethargic, dribbling urine and having trouble standing, it’s almost a sure-fire sign that the dog has gotten into marijuana,” Stone said.

While cannabis toxicity is not known to kill dogs, there can still be fatal complications.

In this Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015, photo, marijuana plants with their buds covered in white crystals called trichomes, are a few weeks away from harvest. Dogs are incredibly susceptible to the effects of cannabis, which can cause severe reactions in them.

In this Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015, photo, marijuana plants with their buds covered in white crystals called trichomes, are a few weeks away from harvest. Dogs are incredibly susceptible to the effects of cannabis, which can cause severe reactions in them.

Seth Perlman/AP

“They can get quite nauseous,” Stone said. “A lot of people think that you can use marijuana in dogs to treat them for nausea, and it actually causes pretty severe nausea in almost all of them. What can be life-threatening is that they get very sedate, and they can vomit and breathe in that vomit and aspirate, and get a pretty horrific pneumonia.”

The more THC an animal consumes, the more serious the complications may be. Stone and Ngwenyama referred to cases of seizures in dogs who consumed massive quantities.

“I’ve heard very rare instances of seizure activity in dogs on incredibly high doses, but we have no idea what causes that,” Stone said. “They could be so sedate that they stop breathing and get a seizure, or that they fall over and get head trauma and have a seizure.”

Whether they use marijuana or not, pet owners should know the signs of toxic cannabis ingestion. Events such as concerts, fairs and festivals can be a pup’s paradise for dropped treats, especially in a dog-friendly area like Central Oregon. But they can be places where pets are exposed to marijuana products. In fact, last summer’s total solar eclipse and its related events produced a spike in THC poisoning at Nitschelm’s Redmond clinic.

So what to do if a dog gets high? Nitschelm and Stone advise pet owners to call their vet if it is still close to the time of ingestion, and induce vomiting according to the vet’s instructions. Waiting until the full effects of THC kick in means the pet may be too sedate to safely induce vomiting.

Once the toxin is out of the animal, take it immediately to the nearest open vet clinic.

“The typical treatment is inducing vomiting and then you give an anti-nausea medication to keep them from vomiting overnight,” Stone said.

Subcutaneous fluids are often administered at the vet clinic to keep the animal hydrated. Before releasing intoxicated pets, vets advise owners not to let their pets eat or drink until they can swallow safely unassisted. Once your pet has reached peak intoxication, prevent further consumption and give supportive care in a quiet, safe and slow environment.

Other common toxins that vets have treated recently include drugs such as ibuprofen, which can cause liver damage, kidney damage, even brain damage; and acetaminophen, which is fatal to cats.

Garlic, onions, grapes, raisins, dark chocolate and macadamia nuts are also toxic to dogs.

More specific to Central Oregon are salmon poisoning disease and mushroom toxicity.

“If the fish can go to the ocean, they may potentially carry the bacteria in their blood,” Nitschelm said.

In dogs that have ingested toxic salmon blood, Nitschelm said, the disease could be fatal. Stone added he has seen a rise in numbers of toxic mushroom consumption.

“We have several different types of toxic mushrooms in the area,” he said. “Some of them are on the rare side, but we can see liver failure happen really quickly with ingestion of a certain type of mushroom in the area.”

More common are tremors caused by mushroom toxins, and dogs will be “very unsteady on their feet. One of the hallmarks is that they shake uncontrollably,” Nitschelm said.

Keep things like medications, food, garbage, marijuana and chemicals stored safely in high places or locked cabinets.

Nitschelm suggests getting familiar with the area before getting a pet. Learn about indoor and outdoor plants at a local garden center, read labels on products carefully before bringing them home and be cautious when cooking with ingredients that can be toxic to pets.

If a pet may have gotten into something they shouldn’t have, “look around, see exactly what it is,” Ngwenyama said. “Look at the packaging so they can give [the vet] details, like what’s the active ingredient and how much they ingested.”