Though former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner Scott Gottlieb left his regulatory post last April, he hasn’t left the frontlines of the CBD debate. The suddenly outspoken ex-chief, who was criticized by many for his failure to make meaningful progress on CBD regulation while in office, has been penning op-eds and making TV appearances for months in an effort to dampen America’s enthusiasm for the non-intoxicating cannabinoid. And CBD pet products have attracted a disproportionate amount of the derision he has long expressed for the CBD craze.
Gottlieb has been publicly skeptical of CBD pet products since (at least) May 2019, when the FDA held a hearing that was billed as the first step toward federal regulation of CBD. Gottlieb seemed doubtful of its efficacy in general — as he told the New York Times, “I don’t think that CBD is doing anything approximating what people are purporting is its magic quality,” — but reserved his harshest criticism for infused pet products.
“Putting CBD into pet food is absurd,” Gottlieb said.
Since then, Gottlieb has doubled (and tripled, and quadrupled) down on his vendetta against CBD pet products.
“The idea that you can put it in dog food and it’s going to calm your dog as you go away to work during the day, or help them get through a lightning storm, I think that’s pretty hokey,” Gottlieb said in June on the CNBC financial talk show Fast Money. “There’s certainly no science to support that.”
In August, Gottlieb added a new layer to his CBD pet products criticism, claiming on C-SPAN that the effectiveness of a CBD pet product could be due to higher-than-labeled THC content.
When a viewer called in to share her positive experience with CBD pet products, Gottlieb replied, “You could be sourcing CBD, giving it to a pet, observing what you perceive as a therapeutic benefit — and that’s because they’re taking THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.”
Later that month, Gottlieb appeared on another CNBC financial talk show, Squawk Box, and referenced the call, prompting a fellow panelist to joke that “the dog was high.”
“Exactly. It might have had THC in it,” Gottlieb said. “I didn’t ask her if he had the munchies too.”
At the time, many observers noted that Gottlieb’s comments seemed to tacitly endorse THC’s ability to relieve anxiety and stimulate appetite — a somewhat curious position for a former high-ranking leader in the federal government, which continues to insist that THC has no valid medical uses. Others focused on Gottlieb’s light-hearted dismissal of the woman’s experience with CBD pet products, and wondered:
Why is he getting so worked up about them?
If you’re feeling charitable, it’s possible to view Gottlieb’s vendetta against infused pet products as a fight to protect unwary pet owners against money-hungry grifters.
CBD pet products have exploded in popularity in the last few years, and there are now a dizzying array of foods, treats, tinctures, creams, and other just-for-pets items on the market. They’ve become a massively lucrative industry, too.
Brightfield Group — the analytics firm behind the “CBD market will reach $22 billion by 2022” thesis — has estimated that infused pet products will be worth $1.16 billion by 2022, up from $8 million in 2017 and $32 million in 2018. (Although the estimate seems ambitious, it has a long way to go before it makes a dent in the $70 billion that U.S. pet owners spent on their pets overall in 2018.) Given the largely unregulated state of the CBD industry, for which Gottlieb deserves a significant amount of blame, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that many of the brands now jumping in might be prone to cutting corners.
However, if you’re less convinced that Gottlieb suddenly morphed into a Robin Hood-like figure after stepping down from his post, you might attribute his opposition to CBD pet products to some combination of the following reasons:
The lack of regulation for CBD products intended for human use also applies to products meant for animals. Following the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, which legalized the production and sale of hemp-derived products like CBD, Gottlieb (who was still FDA commissioner at the time) released a statement that tangentially addressed this:
“Among other things, the FDA requires a cannabis product (hemp-derived or otherwise) that is marketed with a claim of therapeutic benefit, or with any other disease claim, to be approved by the FDA for its intended use before it may be introduced into interstate commerce. This is the same standard to which we hold any product marketed as a drug for human or animal use.”
The FDA isn’t the only influential organization to take a dim view of CBD pet products. Last May, as the FDA was preparing for its public hearing on CBD, the Association of Animal Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) issued its first post-2018 Farm Bill guidance on the use of hemp and hemp-derived ingredients in animal feed and pet food. Following the FDA’s lead, the AAFCO said that hemp may not be used as an ingredient before the agency gives its approval.
While these rulings have been enforced haphazardly at best — see: the 34.3 million search results when you Google “CBD pet products” — companies that defy them risk severe consequences. Recently the FDA sent a warning letter to Curaleaf, one of the largest and most well-established CBD brands in the country, admonishing the company for making unsubstantiated health claims about its products (including its anti-anxiety drops for pets). Within days, the company’s stock plunged 7 percent, and it lost a deal with CVS Pharmacy to stock its products in 800 stores.
It’s clear that pet owners are extremely interested in using CBD to help their pets — according to a 2019 survey from the Veterinary Information Network, almost two-thirds of veterinarians say they’re asked about it on a monthly basis. What’s less clear is whether those dog treats and cat capsules (or especially those single servings of kibble) are actually doing anything.
The number of studies investigating CBD’s effects on animals are even more limited than the ones involving humans, and it’s only in the very recent past that it’s been studied at all.
Many pet owners use CBD to relieve their pets’ anxiety, which is supported more by theory than clinical evidence at this point. Canopy Growth, one of the largest cannabis companies in the world, announced in 2018 that it would be funding a study to investigate CBD’s anti-anxiety potential in animals. However, the results of that study are not yet available to the public.
CBD’s use in the treatment of human epilepsy is relatively well-established. In fact, the only FDA-approved drug derived from CBD is used to treat epilepsy. And while the cannabinoid’s ability to manage animal epilepsy hasn’t received government approval, there’s some scientific evidence to suggest it might be a viable treatment option.
In 2019, researchers at Colorado State University’s School of Veterinary Medicine ran a small pilot study that found CBD could significantly reduce seizures in dogs with epilepsy. A larger and longer study is currently in the works.
The research into CBD’s ability to relieve pets’ pain has also been promising (if limited). The first major study was conducted in 2018, and it found that CBD could be effective at relieving pain and increasing mobility in dogs with arthritis.
Additional studies are currently in progress, and as the U.S. government relaxes its restrictions on cannabis research, it’s possible that Gottlieb might have to find a new talking point to replace his reliable “there’s no proof!” standby.
It’s no secret that many CBD products are contaminated or mislabeled, and warning against the potential dangers of such products is low-hanging fruit for Gottlieb (here, it’s worth mentioning again that he spent two years as the leader of a powerful agency whose job it is to prevent these problems).
However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that CBD itself is dangerous for pets — instead, it’s the pesticides, heavy metals, and other contaminants in unregulated products that pose the greatest risk. While the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) has cautioned pet owners against mixing CBD and other medications, or giving their pets higher-than-recommended doses, it hasn’t identified any inherent risks that CBD poses to pets’ health.
But for some experts, like Michigan State University toxicologist John P. Buchweitz, the potential risks of these unregulated products outweigh the rewards. As he wrote for culture outlet The Conversation, “[Although] these products have been touted for their therapeutic potential, none of them have gone through the rigor of an FDA approval.” Somewhere, Gottlieb is tapping his fingers together and nodding in somber agreement.
Buchweitz’s point is a fair point to raise, and it’s one worth keeping in mind if you’re considering buying a CBD product for your pet. Yet it’s also worth asking why Gottlieb didn’t do anything about this problem when he still had the power to help solve it, and why he’s so vocal about it now.