In a waiting room over the weekend, I talked with a woman who’d spent much of the previous day at the vet. Her dog had been unable to stand and seemed to be having seizures; she was terrified that he was going to die.

There was good news, or at least relatively good news. It turned out to be of “weed toxicity,” from marijuana that she suspects her daughter had in the house. The dog would be fine within a day or two. But not without a significant amount of stress for both the owner and pet — and a not-insignificant vet bill that she was going to try to get her daughter to pay.

This is the good news/bad news scenario that is unfolding across the country as the proliferation of marijuana products for adults trickles down to their children and pets. Accidental ingestion is on the rise in both. And although overdoses in pets might be funny to some people on social media, there’s nothing amusing about it happening to a child.

Dr. Lesley Pepin of Denver Health and Hospital Authority is the co-author of a new study in the journal Pediatrics that examined severe reactions in children under the age of 6 who had consumed cannabis edibles.

“Unintentional pediatric exposures to cannabis products increased dramatically in the last decade. This is a consequence of the increased legalization of cannabis across North America. As of January 2023, all but four states in the United States legalized or decriminalized cannabis to some extent,” according to the study.

Edibles and children

According to the National Institutes for Health, “marijuana refers to the dried leaves, flowers, stems, and seeds from the Cannabis sativa or Cannabis indica plant.” Both THC and CBD compounds are derived from the plant.

In the study, researchers looked at the effects of cannabis edibles on 80 children; the median age was 2.9 years. Not surprisingly, severe reactions correlated to higher doses of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the primary psychoactive compound in marijuana and the one associated with “getting high.” (CBD, which can be extracted from either hemp or cannabis, does not produce a “high” and is what is used is over-the-counter pain relief creams and gels.)

As the authors note, the rise in treatment for young children is because of the recent proliferation of cannibis-infused edibles, which include baked goods, candy and gummies. While there have been multiple reports of children across the U.S. being sickened by consuming edibles at school, in this study, 88% of the children had eaten the product at home, and the most common form of edible was gummies.

Most of the children developed symptoms within two hours and severe effects within four hours. The most common symptom (in 88% of patients) was sedation or lethargy, but severe toxicity was present in 46% of the cases, and 26% were described as “unresponsive or responsive only to painful stimuli.”

“A single patient was unresponsive on arrival and could have been characterized as comatose. She recovered to baseline within 24 hours of ingestion. Seizures, respiratory failure requiring intubation, and hemodynamic compromise requiring vasopressors also occurred” but were rare, the study said.

The authors recommend regulations that would limit the THC content in each package, or require that each serving be individually packaged, as in blister packs. Additional strategies, they said, “could include further consumer education and minimizing the attractiveness of cannabis to children.”

Cannabis and pets

While videos of dogs who have consumed marijuana plants or edibles can go viral on social media, consequences greater than sleepiness are not amusing, and it’s happening even when dog owners don’t themselves use marijuana or keep edibles in the house.

In an article earlier this year on cannabis overdose in dogs, a reporter for The New York Times interviewed a woman whose dog consumed a marijuana cigarette that was on the ground. “It was not the first or even the 10th time the dog had done this,” the article said.

In addition to accumulating pot-related trash, the widespread legalization of marijuana has even prompted one business in Texas to refuse service to anyone who smells like they’ve been smoking pot.

As anyone who has ever walked a dog knows, it can be impossible to react in time if a dog happens upon something tasty. “Though dog owners are used to having to steer nosy pets away from trash, food and other dangers on the sidewalk, the weed is a new risk that’s suddenly everywhere,” the dog owner told The Times.

The prevalence is such that, for the first time, the ASPCA included recreational drugs on its top 10 list of pet toxins released five months ago. “Ingestion of marijuana products can cause lethargy, depression, sedation, incoordination or wobbliness and urinary accidents and in more serious cases can cause a decrease in body temperature, changes to the heart rate and blood pressure and prolonged sedation can lead to aspiration pneumonia,” according to the ASPCA.

As in children, the severity of cannabis toxicity will depend on the person or pet’s size and the amount consumed, but they aren’t getting high, they’ve been poisoned, an article in The Washington Post said.

If cannabis poisoning is suspected in pets, call your vet or the ASPCA’s poison control hotline at 888-426-4435.

If a child has consumed cannabis, call the national Poison Help Line, at 800-222-1222.

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