Ask a Vet: Can CBD Help With Pets' Anxiety? | cannabisMD

Ask a Vet: Does CBD Help With Pets’ Anxiety?

CBD used to treat anxiety and fear in pets.

Fear and anxiety are normal, adaptive responses in pets. CBD can help. Image Credit: By Utekhina Anna on shutterstock.

In today’s busy world, people suffer from a wide array of anxiety- and stress-related conditions. From my clinical experience, it’s clear that anxiety and behavioral disorders plague the pet world as well, unfortunately. In pets, anxiety comes in many different forms: the common fear of thunderstorms and fireworks, the fear of going to the veterinarian’s office, and stress when separated from familiar people or environments, just to name a few.

While a complete discussion of behavioral conditions in pets is beyond the scope of this article, one of the most common disorders in this category is separation anxiety. In fact, it is estimated that roughly 14 percent of dogs have separation anxiety, or an inability of the pet to find comfort when separated from family members, according to the Merck Veterinary Manual. Based on the prevalence of these conditions and the constant chatter surrounding CBD and anxiety, a significant question keeps popping up in the minds of pet parents — can CBD help

Fear and anxiety can be normal adaptive responses, essential to coping with threats to survival in any species. Unfortunately, when these reactions become persistent and/or excessive, they become maladaptive and may lead to severe emotional distress and crippling disability. In the case of separation anxiety, the increasing acceptance of our four-legged friends into the family and home has created an intimate bond between people and their pets. This closeness creates social behaviors in pets that may mimic the pack unit. Even cats, while traditionally considered asocial, have been shown to create strong social bonds. Unfortunately, due to the increasing tendency to form close bonds with other individuals, pets can feel the negative emotions and stress when that individual is absent, as detailed in a 2003 paper published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 

For the pet suffering from this condition, or the pet parent trying to deal with it, it extracts a heavy toll.

How Can I Recognize Anxiety in My Pet?

Signs and symptoms of anxiety in dogs and cats can be subtle. In the case of separation anxiety, most behaviors may occur while the pet parents are absent — only to be discovered from the aftermath when they return home. It is possible to recognize the signs however, and for those suffering from separation anxiety, they begin in the minutes prior to the pet parent’s departure. 

Some of the general symptoms of any type of anxiety may include one or more of the following:

  • Salivation
  • Pacing, restlessness, agitation, clinging
  • Anorexia
  • Destructive behavior (particularly at exits or toward owner possessions)
  • Self-mutilation, such as excessive grooming
  • Distress vocalization
  • House soiling
  • Repetitive or compulsive behaviors
  • In some cases, aggression

How Is Anxiety Treated in Pets?

Traditional treatment for anxiety disorders in pets involves a multimodal approach. In general, behavioral modification techniques such as counterconditioning and desensitization are essential for success. In some cases, this may be all that is necessary. However, when more intense therapy is necessary, these techniques can be combined with medication as well as exercise, good nutrition, aromatherapy, and more.

Typical pharmaceutical treatment consists of using several different classes of drugs. Most commonly, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), such as fluoxetine or sertraline; tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) like clomipramine; and/or tranquilizers such as benzodiazepines. 

While these drugs can be effective, some pets don’t respond favorably, don’t get adequate symptom relief, or can’t tolerate the side effects. Side effects can include anorexia, sedation, gastrointestinal signs, agitation or aggression, insomnia, changes in blood glucose or heart rate, urine retention and seizures. In addition, some of these medications can take weeks before they fully take effect.

How Can CBD Help?

There is a growing body of evidence that CBD can be beneficial for a wide range of anxiety-related disorders in people.

The first clue that CBD could possibly be used as an anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) drug was in a 1974 study, when it was used to change the symptoms induced by THC alone, so that the subjects receiving the mixture showed less anxiety and more pleasurable effects.

Scientific research has shown that CBD interacts with several receptor systems in the body that are known to be involved in the regulation of fear and anxiety-related behaviors, including the serotonin, vanilloid, and endocannabinoid systems. The serotonin system is an established target of one of the most common classes of anti-anxiety drugs, the SSRIs. CBD directly interacts with the serotonin 5-HT1A receptor to confer anti-anxiety effects, as detailed by research published in Current Neuropharmacology. In addition, a recently released study in The Permanente Journal concluded that CBD appears to be better tolerated than routine psychiatric medications.

Scientists around the world are continuing to research CBD for anxiety-related issues in people, and a study on the use of CBD for anxiety in pets was announced last year by Canopy Growth. Clearly, there is much interest in this issue.

Using CBD for Your Pet’s Anxiety

If your pet has anxiety-related issues, talk to your veterinarian. Remember that behavioral issues in pets can be very complicated and require a professional diagnosis of the underlying issue. This can be done by your pet’s regular veterinarian or by a veterinary behavior specialist, who may be more familiar with some of the complex behavioral issues facing our furry family members.

Treatment regimens encompass not only lifestyle and environmental changes, but possibly the addition of drug therapy, as well as other practices. Initiating a protocol with CBD should follow the basic mantra of “start low and go slow” with a slowly increasing dose until the desired effect is reached. This is especially important because some evidence has shown that, in anxiety cases, low doses may be beneficial … the “less is more” approach, which was outlined in a 2015 paper published in Neurotherapeutics. 

Baseline lab testing should be done prior to initiating any of these types of medications, including CBD-containing products, and periodic monitoring of the patient by a licensed veterinary medical provider is crucial. A multimodal approach to helping our pets conquer their fears and live happy, anxiety-free lives requires a firm commitment from everyone in the pet’s family. 

With the huge interest shown by society in general, the preponderance of anecdotal reports, the sheer numbers of ongoing studies, and the wide array of products being marketed for this purpose, it’s no wonder that people are seeking to use CBD for anxiety-related issues — not only for themselves, but for their pets as well. Whether it’s for an ongoing, chronic issue such as separation anxiety; or periodic, situational issues like thunderstorm anxiety, CBD has the potential to be of huge benefit and a strong tool in the treatment options available to pet parents. 

It is true that much research needs to be done on the different types of anxiety-related conditions in different species, for there is much we still do not know. We do know however, that many of the same mechanisms are at work within the bodies of humans and companion animals, and therefore, it is reasonable to expect that our veterinary patients will see the same types of success in treating their anxieties with CBD. Hopefully, research will soon confirm this. 

As always, picking an effective, quality product is an important part of this process. Products need to be evaluated for safety and quality, and products made for people may not necessarily be safe for pets. For those needing assistance in making this choice or in navigating any part of this process, there are resources available. To get started, talk to an experienced veterinary cannabis counselor at www.veterinarycannabis.org. 

“All information provided on cannabisMD is intended to be educational only and does not represent veterinary medical advice. Please see your pet’s regular medical provider with whom you have a valid veterinarian-client-patient relationship for discussion and treatment. Any discussion of dosing or how to use medial cannabis products is not a legal prescription, recommendation or endorsement. Use of medical cannabis products in an animal species should only be done after a full examination and discussion with a licensed veterinarian in compliance with all applicable laws.”

Dr. Elizabeth Mironchik-Frankenberg
Dr. Elizabeth Mironchik-Frankenberg
Dr. Elizabeth Mironchik-Frankenberg is a veterinarian and a passionate cannabis advocate, consultant, educator and writer. She is dedicated to providing the veterinary and cannabis industries with resources promoting education and safe practices regarding cannabis use in pets. To learn more, visit her website here.

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