Ask a Vet: The Definitive Guide to CBD Pet Products

Expert advice on CBD products for pets.

The market for sales of CBD pet products could balloon to more than $1 billion in the U.S. alone by 2022. Image Credit: By ATCHARAPORN NANTAWIENG on shutterstock.

Today, it’s impossible to turn on your computer, scroll through a social media feed, or even get through a week’s worth of news without seeing a story or multiple marketing campaigns for CBD (cannabidiol) products — and with the plethora of these items now on the market for pets, it’s become a daunting prospect for any newly-interested pet owner to enter this world. 

In fact, according to a CNBC report, the Brightfield Group estimates that the market for sales of CBD pet products could balloon to $1.16 billion in the U.S. alone by 2022. It’s easy to see why pet owners are a bit overwhelmed with the choices available. Since they are not likely to find these products on the shelves at their veterinary clinic, and because veterinarians may not be able to recommend one, how does a pet parent choose a quality item and ensure that it is safe? CBD pet foods, treats, liquids … is one better than another? Are they worth the money? With so many reports of mislabeling, overdosing, and contaminated products, where is a pet parent to turn?

In this comprehensive guide, I will try to make this process a bit easier by going through the basic steps needed to evaluate and choose a product for your pet. I’ll discuss how to “weed” through all the nonsense and get to the crucial, relevant information needed to make an informed choice for your furry family member.

Help! Where Does the Pet Parent Start With CBD?

Ideally, this process should begin with a discussion with your pet’s veterinarian. Not every pet needs the addition of cannabinoids to its diet or treatment regimen. Avoid the use of CBD as the newest “fad” and determine if your pet is truly a candidate and would benefit for a specific medical reason. If a pet (or a person) is healthy and has a normally functioning endocannabinoid system (ECS), I would argue that there is no need to supplement. After all, would you take vitamin D if you didn’t need it? 

Which Type of CBD Product Is Best for Pets?

Dry or canned food, treats, capsules, drinks, tinctures, topicals … the choices seem to be endless. While every pet’s needs are different, the fact remains that if you are using a CBD product for a medical reason and looking for specific results, accurate dosing is imperative. Therefore, these products should be treated as medical products and dosed with regularity and accuracy. 

To this end, the most practical solution for most pets is either a liquid formula (often called a tincture or “oil”) or a measured dose edible, which are both easy to administer and ensure an accurate dosage.

I believe tinctures to be the best choice, because they give the most consistent, accurate dosing, especially for smaller pets. Tinctures are likely to be either alcohol-based or oil-based. For pets, avoid the alcohol-containing formulations. An oil-based liquid is a better choice for reasons of safety and palatability — and it can also be absorbed more effectively by the body, as detailed in a 2019 study in the journal Epilepsia. This liquid can be put directly into a pet’s mouth, in a small portion of broth or water, or into a soft food treat.

For edibles, there are a wide variety of treats and foods available that are marketed for animals. It is more practical to choose a single-dose type of treat that can be given easily, quickly, and in your presence, rather than pouring food in a bowl and walking away. These treats should have a measured amount of active ingredient (i.e. CBD or other cannabinoids) per treat or piece for accurate dosing.

Checking CBD products before you buy

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How Do You Evaluate the CBD Products Available for Your Pet?

When choosing any CBD product, you must become aware of how to read the packaging and learn what questions to ask. This is true whether you are shopping online, in a retail shop, or at a dispensary. While there are many characteristics to look for and interpret on the product label, I believe the most important are:

  1. Ingredients: What is in this product? Make sure the product is clearly labeled with ALL the ingredients, both active and inactive. You want to know which cannabinoids (the active ingredients) are present, but just as important are the other inactive ingredients. This is because some products may have elements that could potentially cause problems, such as fillers, flavorings, and/or additives like artificial sweeteners or chocolate. For example, many products have xylitol as a flavor additive, but this is extremely toxic to pets. Ideally, the fewer ingredients the better.
  1. Concentration: What levels of cannabinoids are present? In order to ensure accurate dosing for your pet, you want to make sure that the amounts and types of cannabinoids are clearly listed. This information should be listed in milligrams (mg). Some companies will provide this information for the entire bottle or package, but it is important to know the concentration of the product, which is the amount of cannabinoids per dose. In a liquid formula, this is displayed as either mg/ml (milliliter), mg/dropper, or mg/drop. For edible products, look for mg/treat or mg/piece. 
  1. Safety: How do I know this product is safe? Make sure your product is as pure as possible. Ensure it has been lab-tested and is free from harmful contaminants such as solvent residues, pesticides, mold, and bacterial contamination. Ideally, look for organic products made in the U.S.

How Can You Be Assured of a CBD Product’s Quality?

Knowing what to look for and what questions to ask are only the first steps in product evaluation. Unfortunately, some of this information may not be conveniently listed on the package. This is understandable, considering the amount of information needed and the relatively small size of product packaging. In many cases, pet parents and/or veterinary professionals will have to do some digging to find the answers they seek. 

Due to the current lack of adequate regulation and oversight, at least in the hemp-based CBD industry, there have been numerous reports of inaccurate labeling of some products, as described in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Consumers need to do their own due diligence or suffer from “let the buyer beware,” which may have serious consequences for the pet.

Fortunately, there are ways to verify the information you receive. Finding a reputable company that is transparent, willing to answer specific questions, and furnish requested information is one of the biggest hurdles to overcome. The best method of answering the questions above — and to ensure unbiased quality control — is to request the Certificate of Analysis (COA) for your intended product. The COA, which is the lab-issued document that reports the testing results on the product, is the “gold standard” for product evaluation. Ideally, the lab should be independent from the company making the product. 

To get the COA for your product, you may have to check the company website or contact them directly. A reputable company committed to producing safe and effective products will have each batch tested, despite the added expense involved. However, not every manufacturer will commit to this process and currently, in the hemp-based CBD industry, there is no requirement for testing. Until these requirements are put in place by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), it’s up to you, the consumer, to insist on it by only purchasing products from companies committed to this aspect of quality control. 

CBD advice for pet products

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How to Decipher a CBD Pet Product’s Safety

A full discussion of COA interpretation is far beyond the scope of this article but, in general, the COA should have information on two basic aspects of the product: potency and safety.

The potency aspect of the lab results should give information on the active ingredients. All the major cannabinoids should be tested for, and the individual cannabinoids and the amounts present in your product should be listed in milligrams (mg). Using this information to compare against what’s listed on the product label will give you some assurance as to the accuracy of the labeling. It should also be used in determining an accurate dose for your pet. In addition, some companies may test for other active components, such as terpenes.

The safety aspect of the lab results should give information on the presence or absence of any potentially dangerous contaminants. You want to ensure that your product has been tested for the presence of harmful chemicals, heavy metals, and disease-causing organisms like molds, fungi, and bacteria. The report should indicate whether the product is free of — or at least within acceptable limits — of any of the contaminants listed above.

If you are not able to get your questions answered, if the company does not perform any testing, or if it will not provide a COA, I would use extreme caution. It has been my experience that transparency and integrity go hand in hand. Any company that is unwilling to show good faith to their customer base may not be in this industry for long.

There is currently a raging debate regarding cannabis and CBD products in the United States. The FDA is under intense pressure to put a regulatory process in place to help safeguard the public. I believe what will set the transient companies simply looking to capitalize on the “CBD craze” apart from those truly seeking to make their mark in the industry is the desire to prove their commitment to quality and integrity. For individual companies to rise to the top and remain a force in this market, they will need to adhere to the highest standards. Pet parents and consumers must help guide this market by insisting on those standards and holding these companies to them.

Understanding Key CBD Terminology for Pets (and Humans, Too)

Earlier, we discussed the initial steps in product selection: how to evaluate a product and confirm its ingredients using the certificate of analysis (COA). Other important steps in this process involve deciphering commonly used terms, understanding cannabinoid ratios and the different sources of CBD, and how to avoid some common mistakes.

As the newly initiated pet parent continues their search for a quality product, it’s inevitable that certain confusing terms will be encountered. There is no standard resource available yet to help define the terminology and many pet parents and professionals alike find themselves baffled. 

As a cannabis educator, I’m often asked to explain many of the popular industry terms used to characterize CBD (cannabidiol) or other cannabis products. A pet parent researching CBD will undoubtedly come across certain expressions, such as “full spectrum,” “broad spectrum,” and “isolate.” These are phrases that are prevalent throughout the industry, but they are somewhat confusing — and are often used incorrectly. Still, this language may be very prominent on package labels, leading the consumer to struggle with deciphering its meaning.

To simplify, these terms generally refer to the range of active components within the product.

  • A product deemed ‘full spectrum’ should have ALL the active components that were in the original plant. These should include cannabinoids, terpenes, flavonoids, etc. 
  • Conversely, an ‘isolate’ product refers to one in which a purified, isolated form of a single molecule (usually a cannabinoid or terpene) is contained within the product. The most common example is a CBD-infused oil. 
  • In between these extremes, there is a somewhat hazy area of ‘broad spectrum’ products that exist. This phrase is more ambiguous, but usually indicates a product that was originally full spectrum but has been altered by the removal of one or more active components. In the pet world, this typically means the removal of THC.

In theory, a full spectrum product should have the most robust, natural entourage effect. However, product manufacturers are aware of this, and some may stamp a product label with this phrase as a clever marketing tool instead of an accurate scientific description.

Regardless of what specific terms are used on the label, remember that the certificate of analysis (COA) should always be used to confirm the presence of all the active components in the product. This will give you the best idea of the product’s true potency, regardless of the label claims.

Cannabinoid Ratios

When searching for CBD products, the most readily available are derived from hemp. Typically, these products range from CBD isolates (only containing purified CBD) to the full spectrum of components contained within the hemp plant. In general, the amounts of the two most relevant cannabinoids (CBD and THC) in these products tends to be high for CBD and very low to absent for THC. Most of the hemp products that I’ve encountered typically have ratios of approximately 25:1 CBD to THC, or more. This means that there are 25-parts CBD to 1-part THC. These are basically CBD-heavy or CBD-dominant products, with small amounts of THC (and possibly other cannabinoids) that contribute to the entourage effect.

While most pets can benefit from a CBD-heavy product, there are cases in which your veterinarian may determine that a product with a higher percentage of other cannabinoids, such as THC, is warranted. In this case, a different cannabinoid ratio product may be utilized. Here, I must caution pet owners that this type of treatment is highly individualized and depends on the pet’s specific needs, and should only be pursued under the guidance and supervision of a licensed veterinarian. 

Differences between hemp and marijuana CBD

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What’s the Difference Between Hemp and Marijuana CBD?

As you’ve probably already discovered, CBD products for people and pets are virtually everywhere. These ubiquitous products are derived from hemp. There are however, two main sources of CBD: hemp and marijuana*. While Cannabis sativa is the genus and species of the plant that includes both hemp and marijuana, there are important differences between these two categories of the plant. 

One of the most relevant differences between the two is the current legal status. While this article is not intended to be a legal discussion, nor should it be construed as legal advice, this topic bears mentioning. To briefly summarize, after the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018 (otherwise known as the 2018 Farm Bill) was passed, hemp was defined as Cannabis sativa with THC content below 0.3 percent and removed from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). Products made from hemp, however, are still under the purview of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and there is currently much debate over their regulation and legality. Marijuana, on the other hand, is defined as Cannabis sativa with THC at or above 0.3 percent and is still federally illegal under the CSA.

What this means for the pet parent looking for a CBD product is that, throughout the country, hemp-derived CBD products are readily available, despite their rather murky legal status. They can be purchased online, in various retail outlets and seemingly, almost anywhere you look.

Currently, to obtain a marijuana-derived CBD product that may have a higher percentage of THC, the only legal option is to visit a licensed dispensary in a state that has laws that allow for this.

Whichever source of CBD you are planning on using, please check all your state and local laws to confirm what is lawful in your jurisdiction. Wherever you obtain your product, be sure to check the COA to confirm its contents, potency and safety. Remember that despite their widespread use and availability, there are currently no FDA-approved cannabis products for veterinary use.

CBD pet product quality advice

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Final thoughts for pet parents…

To close, my intent in writing this guide is to try to make a very complicated process a bit easier. The rapidly evolving world of cannabinoids in veterinary medicine is still in its infancy, and there is so much we, as a community and as a profession, need to learn. 

Assisting pet parents — and each other — in making informed choices will ultimately be in every pet’s best interest. By sharing our knowledge and experience, we can reduce the potential for harm while hopefully, increasing the rate of successful outcomes.

Please remember that with the intense competition that exists in the CBD industry, there is NO reason to settle for a company that does not commit to quality and transparency, nor a product that does not meet your specific needs. While it takes time, effort, and patience, due diligence pays off. Commit to the process to make the best, informed decision for your furry family member. After all, your pet deserves the best.

As always, for those needing guidance in product choice, assistance in interpreting lab results, 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.

*Author’s note: The term ‘marijuana’ is largely regarded by those in the cannabis industry as a controversial word that was created to mislead the general public in the early 1900’s. Its derogatory connotation was used to fuel the racially charged, negative stigma surrounding cannabis use. When used by this author, it is done reluctantly and to 1) highlight the general negative perception shown by some towards cannabis 2) as a direct reflection of use by another source or 3) to avoid confusion by using common nomenclature.

“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 medical 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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