This Is Your Dog on Drugs

Reports of cannabis poisonings among pets have increased in the era of marijuana legalization.

Why pet poisonings have spiked in the era of legalized marijuana. Plus: Homeless ODs, and assessing SUD more quickly

By Mark Mravic

The relaxation of marijuana laws across North America has its benefits, but it also comes with collateral effects that can be unexpected and surprising. The latest: a Canadian study that found a sharp rise in reports of cannabis poisonings among household pets gobbling up unattended edibles.

Also this week, we look at grim overdose numbers among L.A.’s homeless population, and an online tool that can screen for substance use disorder (SUD) in four minutes.

From PLOS One:
Pot Poisoning in Pets

As marijuana restrictions ease and access becomes more widespread, we’ve seen a number of warnings about unintended consequences, especially inadvertent exposure among children. But kids aren’t the only ones at risk. A new study from the University of Guelph in Canada found a significant rise in reports of cannabis poisonings among household pets in the past few years.

Researchers from the Ontario Veterinary College surveyed 251 vets in Canada, where recreational marijuana has been legal since 2018, and the U.S., where it’s now legal in 18 states (with more on the way). Vets reported a rise in exposures since 2018, most commonly among dogs, although cats, iguanas, ferrets, horses and even cockatoos were also affected. The biggest risk came from pets ingesting edibles, which are often packaged with chocolate and other ingredients that are appealing—and dangerous—to animals. Some of the pets encountered cannabis in discarded joints, compost and even human feces as well. Symptoms included incontinence, disorientation, loss of coordination and hypersensitivity to light and touch.

Khokhar now plans a study on how cats metabolize cannabis, the results of which may be applicable to small children as well as pets.

Most pets that consumed cannabis recovered within 24 hours with monitoring or moderate treatment, the study found, but vets did report a small number of deaths. Lead author Jibran Khokhar, PhD, noted the difficulty in assessing cannabis toxicosis across pets that range widely in size, weight and species; and research on the subject so far is scanty. He said the fatalities “could be related to other additives like chocolate or xylitol that might have been in the cannabis edible. … If the pets are consuming an edible, you have to be concerned about both the cannabis in it, [and] also those other ingredients.”

Khokhar now plans a study on how cats metabolize cannabis, the results of which may be applicable to small children as well as pets. “If we can begin to model it in animals,” he says, “maybe we can intervene with a drug or an agent that either reverses or blocks the effects of the cannabinoids.”

From the L.A. Department of Public Health:
Homeless Overdose Deaths Soar

The COVID-19 crisis sparked widespread concerns about impacts on vulnerable and marginalized groups, including unhoused populations. A report from the Los Angeles County Health Department spells out those impacts in grim detail. From April 2020 to March 2021, the county—which has the largest homeless population in the U.S.—recorded 1,988 deaths among unhoused people, up from 1,271 during the previous 12-month span, a 56% increase. The report notes that COVID was a major factor in the increase, with 179 deaths directly attributed to the virus, but the biggest driver was fatal drug overdoses, which increased a staggering 78%, from 402 to 715. In other words, fatal ODs among the homeless in Los Angeles were four times as numerous as COVID deaths in the first year of the pandemic, and there were more additional overdose deaths than there were deaths from the virus alone.

“The findings in this report reflect a true state of emergency.”

—Hilda L. Solis, L.A. County supervisor

The study suggests that disruption of mental health and addiction treatment services in the first year of the pandemic contributed to the rise in overdoses, and called for a dramatic expansion of addiction and housing services, as well as naloxone distribution and other harm reduction measures. “The findings in this report reflect a true state of emergency,” county supervisor Hilda L. Solis, former U.S. Labor Secretary under Barack Obama, said in a statement. “In a civil society, it is unacceptable for any of us to not be profoundly disturbed by the shocking needs documented in this year’s homeless mortality report.”

From Drug and Alcohol Dependence Reports:
A New Tool for Assessing SUD—Quickly

Researchers at the University of Indiana have developed a digital screening method that, according to a recent study, accurately assesses a patient for substance use disorder in a matter of minutes rather than hours. The IU scientists built on an existing tool, called Computerized Adaptive Testing for Mental Health (CAT-MH), to include substance use information across a range of drugs and behavior patterns. The researchers then evaluated 275 subjects, comparing the diagnostic results from their screening tool, the CAT-SUD-E, with the “gold standard” for assessment, the Structured Clinical Interview for DSM-5.

The study found that that the CAT-SUD-E achieved results comparable to the clinician interview, but did so in under four minutes, as opposed to the hour or more required with the standard method. Because patients can complete the test on a smartphone, tablet or computer at home or during a clinical visit, researchers say the tool has the potential to relieve bottlenecks and ease the severe staffing crunches that many providers are experiencing, making it easier for patients to be evaluated and begin treatment.

Said Leslie A. Hulvershorn, MD, who led the study: “The expanded test has the potential to improve identification of individuals with substance use disorders across settings without extensive efforts to hire and train more clinical staff and should substantially decrease the amount of time spent conducting assessments. This tool could be instrumental in helping one of our most vulnerable populations receive the treatment they need.”

Top photo: Rooney, a New York City dog being treated for cannabis consumption