It all started on a Tuesday night, when I came home from work to an unmistakable absence. My brown-and-white pit bull mix, Maizey, wasn't at the top of the stairs to greet me. Instead she was in her bed, shaky and confused.
When I tried to get her up, she stumbled, nearly falling over while standing still. Walking to the vet, she leaped like a puppy chasing imaginary balls.
Later, at the 24-hour veterinary clinic in San Francisco's Mission District, the staff ran some tests and determined Maizey was in no immediate danger.
Instead, they wagered a guess that Maizey was simply high. On marijuana.
How are dogs getting high?
"Dogs will get into anything and everything," says veterinarian Dorrie Black, of the veterinary clinic Animal Internal Medicine and Specialty Services.
Thirty-three states and the District of Columbia now have legalized pot in some form. And since Colorado ushered in recreational marijuana in 2014, nine more states and D.C. have followed. As weed has become easier for people to get, it has also become a hazard for dogs.
Black says dogs ingest marijuana by eating the remainder of a joint, or getting into someone's edible marijuana, either at home, on the street or in parks.
Another unsavory source in San Francisco — and other cities with high numbers of people living on the streets — is human feces tainted with marijuana. This is, in fact, what we think happened to Maizey. She spent quite a bit of time in the park bushes the morning she got stoned.
"Dogs love that [poop] scent," Black says. "To them it's perfume."
Black and other veterinarians believe this particular problem is becoming more common in the Bay Area, as the homeless population grows.
What does a high dog look like?
Veterinarian Benjamin A. Otten of allCREATURES veterinary clinic in El Cerrito, Calif., says he looks for these telltale symptoms when identifying "marijuana toxicity" in a dog:
- Wobbly movements, like a person who is drunk
- Dribbling urine
- A dazed or glazed look in the dog's eyes
- Low temperature
Dogs exhibit these symptoms because THC — the psychoactive element of marijuana — is poisonous to them. Despite that, none of the vets interviewed for this story has seen an animal die from marijuana toxicity.
"There's nothing about that actual drug itself that will kill them," Black says. "It doesn't cause any organ failure. It doesn't cause liver failure [or] renal failure."
What can happen, Black says, is that the drug can sedate a dog so fully that it will inhale its own vomit, which can be lethal. For that reason, Black cautions pet owners to play it safe.
"If you do not know the quantity that they got into, I'm always going to recommend that you go to your vet," she says.
A Colorado study several years ago found that two dogs who had ingested chocolate baked goods made with marijuana-infused butter had died, but it's unclear if this was from the marijuana, the chocolate, or the combination of those components. Butter and dark chocolate, common ingredients in edible marijuana products, can be highly toxic to dogs.
Cannabidiol, or CBD, on the other hand, is actually marketed to pet owners for a variety of pet ailments. But the research is still incomplete about its efficacy for treating things like animal anxiety and seizures, and veterinarians are not allowed to recommend CBD to patients (although there is a bill making its way through California's Senate that could change that).
How do you treat a dog that has ingested marijuana?
To reduce marijuana's effects on a dog, there are a few options, according to Black: Veterinarians can induce vomiting, pump the dog's stomach or give the pet activated charcoal, which will help remove the marijuana from the dog's system.
On average, it typically takes about 24 hours for a dog to return to normal after such an ingestion — but that time varies, based on the strength and amount of the marijuana the dog has eaten.
Otten, who formerly worked as an emergency vet, jokes about what he used to tell his pet owners: "We're going to take your dog in, we're going to put him in a quiet room. We're going to play some Led Zeppelin for him and give him some Doritos and you can pick him up in the morning."
How much does treating your dog for marijuana ingestion cost?
While my own vet bill put us out $300, veterinarian John de Jong, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, says interventions like blood work and IV fluids could cost up to $1,000.
What about cats?
It seems to be more rare for cats to ingest marijuana. Black says she's seen only one case involving a cat in her 17 years in emergency veterinary medicine.
While de Jong also has not seen any high cats come through his practice, he says some cats do like to chew on plants, which could be an issue if someone is growing marijuana at home.
How has legalization changed things?
Dr. de Jong, who is based in Massachusetts, says marijuana toxicity among pets may be on the rise in his state, where marijuana is legal for medical and recreational purposes.
"In those states that have legalized marijuana, we are seeing an increased incidence of marijuana toxicity in pets, especially in dogs," he says.
Recreational marijuana use is legal in 10 states and the District of Columbia, and many more states permit the use of medical marijuana.
Calls to ASPCA's Animal Poison Control Center about dogs eating weed have increased seven-fold since last year, and calls to the Pet Poison Helpline have quadrupled in the past five years. A 2012 study conducted in Colorado found a significant correlation between the number of medical marijuana licenses and marijuana toxicosis cases in dogs.
In California, both Black and Otten say the changes to marijuana's legality have not significantly increased the number of visits they get from blitzed dogs and their owners. Black says she sees up to three affected dogs a week in the summer.
What has changed, however, Black and Otten say, is the potency of the drugs the dogs are consuming.
At the start of her career in emergency veterinary medicine, Black says, marijuana toxicity consisted of a dog eating the end of a joint with fairly low amounts of THC. But, she says, "we got heavier and heavier toxicities over time, because of medical-grade marijuana and because of edibles."
As for my dog Maizey — she was just fine a few days after her foray into canine cannabis. Though she once seemed interested in imaginary balls, now she's settled back into chasing real ones.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Now we're going to talk about dogs. The health hazards for our best friends are many - ticks, fleas, chocolate. But there is another danger for dogs that may not be on your radar yet. Reporter Laura Klivans with member station KQED first learned about it in her very own living room in San Francisco.
LAURA KLIVANS, BYLINE: I came home from work one night to an unmistakable absence - our brown and white pit bull, Maizey, was not at the top of the stairs to greet me. Instead, she was in her bed, shaky and confused. When I tried to get her up, she stumbled.
(SOUNDBITE OF AFROMAN'S "BECAUSE I GOT HIGH")
KLIVANS: At the vet, they ran some tests. I got a $300 bill and a diagnosis - Maizey, the dog, got high.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BECAUSE I GOT HIGH")
AFROMAN: (Singing) Because I got high, because I got high, because I got high. La-da...
KLIVANS: She'd probably eaten some marijuana. And it turns out, she's not the only accidental hash puppy.
(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)
GERALD: Thank you for calling Animal Internal Medicine. This is Gerald (ph). How can I help you?
KLIVANS: At this San Francisco clinic near Golden Gate Park, Dr. Dorrie Black sees a lot of high dogs. Weed's legal in California.
DORRIE BLACK: You definitely are going to see a few a month, for sure. But in the summer, we often see about three a week.
KLIVANS: Here's what she looks out for.
BLACK: One, they do have a dazed or glazed look in their eyes. Often, owners report that they're wobbly, or what we call ataxic. And then they also often urinate a lot, uncontrollably.
KLIVANS: But it's not like Fido is intentionally getting baked.
BLACK: Dogs will get into anything and everything.
KLIVANS: Like eating the end of a joint on the sidewalk or, more likely, edibles they find at home. And with many people living on the streets in the Bay Area, dogs are ingesting drugs through human poop.
BLACK: Dogs love that scent; to them, it's perfume.
KLIVANS: We're pretty sure that's what happened to Maizey. She spent a little too long in the park bushes that morning. Dr. John de Jong is the president of the American Veterinary Medical Association. He's based in Massachusetts, one of 10 states where recreational and medical pot is legal.
JOHN DE JONG: In those states that have legalized marijuana, we are seeing an increased incidence of marijuana toxicity in pets, especially in dogs.
KLIVANS: This kind of call to ASPCA's National Animal Poison Control Center has increased sevenfold since last year, not only because of legalization, but also because weed products now have higher levels of THC.
DE JONG: The THC, which is the active ingredient in marijuana that gives people high, is the one that's actually toxic to dogs.
KLIVANS: Even though THC is toxic, none of the vets spoke to for this story have ever seen an animal die from it. Here's Dr. Black again.
BLACK: There's nothing about that actual drug itself that will kill them.
KLIVANS: But a dog could get so high that it inhales its own vomit. So she urges caution.
BLACK: If you do not know the quantity that they got into, I'm always going to recommend that you go to your vet.
KLIVANS: Maybe they'll pump your dog's stomach, or if it's not as serious, let them ride out the high. Former emergency vet Ben Otten jokes about what he used to tell pet owners.
BENJAMIN OTTEN: OK, we're going to take your dog in. We're going to put him in a quiet room. You know, we're going to play some Led Zeppelin for him and give him some Doritos, and then you can come pick him up in the morning.
(SOUNDBITE OF LED ZEPPELIN'S "GOING TO CALIFORNIA")
KLIVANS: In Maizey's case, she wasn't dangerously high, so the vet didn't need to keep her for observation. He sent us all home and told us simply to keep a close eye for the next day or two on our sweet, stoned pooch. For NPR News, I'm Laura Klivans, in San Francisco.
KELLY: And this story is part of a reporting partnership between NPR, KQED and Kaiser Health News.
(SOUNDBITE OF LED ZEPPELIN'S "GOING TO CALIFORNIA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.