BY TAYLOR ENGLE | Original illustration for Ember by Manon Cezaro
Cannabis is more mainstream than ever before, and the wide-ranging benefits of the plant continue to find an intersecting home in every industry imaginable. And while cannabis and the medical industry have always gone hand in hand, very few have associated it with veterinary science—until now.
VETCBD is one of the first cannabis brands in the world to be geared entirely towards pet owners and their little furry friends. Their CBD-based products are introducing the industry to a whole new demand—one that has already proven to be incredibly beneficial to pets who need relief.
While it's federally illegal to prescribe cannabis for pets, Assembly Bill 384 was introduced in California this year to allow for licensed veterinarians to recommend CBD to pets, while a previous 2018 effort with AB-2215 was the first instance where vets were permitted to even mention CBD with pet owners.
In recognition of the benefits emerging studies suggest cannabis can offer our beloved pets, VETCBD has launched a scholarship program for veterinary students to bring awareness and distill that hesitation between cannabis and veterinary medicine—the first of its kind.
It’s no secret that cannabis has been stigmatized throughout the past several decades in the U.S. as legalization evolves. The legal market is still struggling to shed off that stigma, and while we’ve definitely come a long way, some industries remain more hesitant to adapt than others.
While recreational cannabis is still a somewhat-new concept, the medical benefits that many humans reap from the plant are pretty irrefutable at this point—most states in the U.S. have some form of medical cannabis program in place. But if cannabis is so medically beneficial to humans, why would we assume its potential benefits stop there?
Most available research on cannabis is gleaned from how animals, like mice or rats, react to the plant. But despite the fact that much of this research has revealed that the plant seems to work just as beneficially in these animals as it does in humans, veterinary science remains largely in the dark when it comes to using cannabis as a treatment option. Unfortunately, veterinarians are largely at a loss when it comes to speaking to clients about CBD and other cannabis products.
Despite the lack of available knowledge and information, more researchers have been slowly broaching the topic. In 2018, a study revealed that CBD was able to reduce pain in dogs with no negative side effects. More recently, a 2021 study researched the effect of cannabis on shelter dogs, revealing the plant may reduce aggressive behavior towards humans.
"If there’s value in bringing this to our patients, we have a medical and moral obligation to do so. And it turns out there are many possible benefits to treating pets with cannabis."
Licensed veterinarian and CEO Dr. Tim Shu aimed to bring information like this into the veterinary space when he founded VETCBD and VETCBD Hemp. “The way I approach medicine is that it always needs to be improving. Otherwise, we’re doing our patients a disservice,” Dr. Shu said.
“Let’s take a good hard look at this plant. If there’s value in bringing this to our patients, we have a medical and moral obligation to do so. And it turns out there are many possible benefits to treating pets with cannabis.” After observing hands-on accounts of animals in need benefiting greatly from cannabis therapy, Dr. Shu developed his meticulously-tested and responsibly-grown line of CBD-infused products—curated specifically for animal use.
The veterinary entrepreneur founded VETCBD in 2015. It has since grown to be the #1 veterinarian-formulated pet cannabis brand in California, and an authority on cannabis-infused pet healthcare. “I think for a long time, people have associated cannabis with just THC,” Dr. Shu said. “From a veterinary perspective, cannabis has been unfairly demonized over the years.” When Dr. Shu was still studying to become a doctor, he never learned about cannabis as a possible beneficial treatment for pets. In fact, he was taught the exact opposite.
“The only time cannabis was ever mentioned in my curriculum as a vet student was in terms of toxicology: what happens when animals get into too much THC, like from an edible,” Dr. Shu said.
“But THC’s intoxicating effects are dose-dependent. In small amounts, there isn’t an intoxicating effect on animals. In fact, we know there are therapeutic benefits to THC—it’s just a matter of how it’s being used, and the dose being given." Dr. Shu believes the way cannabis is viewed and discussed in veterinary science is extremely limiting, inaccurate, and clouded in outdated stigmas yet to be fully erased.
If you work in cannabis or consume the plant regularly, chances are you’ve heard about the endocannabinoid system. This biological system is composed of endocannabinoids, lipid-based neurotransmitters that bind to cannabinoid receptors in the body.
It’s also the system that cannabis interacts directly with when it enters the body. The plant will bind to an organism’s cannabinoid receptors, signaling the endocannabinoid system to take action: relieving pain, reducing inflammation, or curbing anxiety, among other varying effects.
All animals—including mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish—have been found to have endocannabinoid systems, which implies that all animals may benefit from cannabis therapy. Not just humans. But this vital system that's integral to the function of other major bodily systems is actually not covered in medical school.
“It’s not just the plant that’s been neglected. The entire endocannabinoid system has been left out of the medical world. This is a complete travesty,” Dr. Shu said.
“Here’s an analogy I always give: if you were to go into medical school or vet school and say, you know what, we’re taking the endocrine system [which regulates the body’s hormones] out of the curriculum. You’d have all of these doctors graduating, going into practice, and not knowing anything about the endocrine system. That would be considered malpractice.”
"The entire endocannabinoid system has been left out of the medical world. This is a complete travesty."
Dr. Shu views medicine’s lack of regard for the endocannabinoid system as just that. The medical industry has a moral obligation to provide knowledge about the entire anatomy of a patient—not just the parts that aren’t associated with tired old stigmas.
“If you ask your doctor about the endocannabinoid system and what roles it plays in health and disease, they likely won’t know anything about the system, or its importance,” Dr. Shu said. “Or, quite frankly, people often get, ‘I don’t feel comfortable talking to you about that because I don’t know if I’m legally protected to do so.’”
Although this stigma around cannabis remains quite intact throughout the medical industry, Shu’s experience with cannabis and pets has been largely positive—and sometimes even life-changing.
“I use the acronym ‘PAINS’: Pain, Anxiety, Inflammation, Nausea, and Seizures,” Dr. Shu said when describing the different ways cannabis might be used to treat a pet. Unfortunately, the medical industry isn’t able to make direct claims about the possible benefits of cannabis, but Dr. Shu and his colleaguse have witnessed first-hand the ways cannabis has significantly increased a pet patient's quality of life.
“The reality is that no therapeutic method is going to work 100% of the time for 100% of the patients, but we have seen many instances where cannabis has been life-changing and sometimes life-saving,” Dr. Shu said. Dr. Shu recalls several occasions where pet owners had tried all of the usual prescriptions and therapeutics to no avail. As a last resort, they decide to give cannabis a try and are usually quite amazed at the value the plant provides to their pet’s life.
“When I say life-saving, I mean there are literally cases where the owners have tried everything, but the ongoing debilitating issues severely impact the pet’s quality of life to the point where they’re beginning to consider euthanasia,” Dr. Shu said. “They’ll try cannabis as a last-ditch effort. We’ve gotten many reports of amazing differences, improving quality of life to the point where the owner was able to cancel that euthanasia appointment entirely.”
While Dr. Shu may be in the minority of veterinarians who recognize the power of cannabis, he’s not entirely alone. Owner of Veterinary Cannabis Casara Andre noticed what a positive effect hemp had on her 15-year-old arthritic cat in 2017. The cat, Mattie, was suffering from arthritis, loss of appetite, and inflammatory bowel disease when Andre began incorporating hemp into his diet.
“I bought tinctures from a medical dispensary, and after a couple of weeks, I saw even more dramatic progress in her playfulness, willingness to go outside, and her ability to jump on things and groom herself more effectively,” Andre said in an interview with the American Animal Hospital Association.
Chief Medical Officer of Rx Vitamins Robert Silver authored Medical Marijuana and Your Pet: The Definitive Guide, a guide for pet owners interested in utilizing cannabis for their pet’s health. “I hear so many stories of the beneficial effects of CBD on dogs with arthritis and epilepsy,” Silver said at a veterinary cannabis conference.
Silver also referenced a 1974 National Institutes of Health study that revealed THC slowed the growth of induced cancers in mice, increasing survival time by 36 percent. Research and anecdotal evidence like this has kept veterinary cannabis advocates driven to keep pushing for acceptance and education within the community—like with the community’s first ever scholarship that came from cannabis.
VETCBD’s Memorial Scholarship awards 6 veterinary students with a $1,000 scholarship towards the selected students' tuition. Each scholarship will be named in honor of a much-loved companion animal who has "crossed the Rainbow Bridge" to ensure their legacies live on through the work of the veterinary students and veterinary technicians.
The program also aims to raise awareness and education around the promising findings observed between pets and the plant. “Because cannabis has been so heavily stigmatized in the veterinary space, we’re doing everything we can to change that. One of the ways we want to do that is to say, this scholarship comes from cannabis sales,” Dr. Shu said.
“This scholarship is also very symbolic, and represents the legacy of these pets that have moved on. It goes back into the hands of these healers and allows their legacy to live on.”
"When we’re talking about the therapeutic value of cannabinoids [for pets], we’re just scratching the surface."
This isn’t the only work VETCBD is doing to encourage the cannabis and veterinary industries—they’re also have a “One Fur One” program (for every tincture purchased from the site, VETCBD donates a bottle to a rescue organization) and are partnered with Best Friends Animal Society, which is leading the no-kill movement.
“My philosophy is that business should be a vehicle for philanthropy,” Dr. Shu said. “We’re incredibly grateful and proud of our sponsorships that help pets in need.” As for cannabis treatment for pets, Dr. Shu believes the industry is still in early stages, with a lot of potential up ahead.
“When we’re talking about the therapeutic value of cannabinoids, we’re just scratching the surface,” Dr. Shu said. “We need a strong focus on education and research to better understand the cannabis plant and the endocannabinoid system. As medical professionals, we have a moral obligation to do so.”
To view official rules for scholarship entry and learn more about the scholarship program in general, visit vetcbdhemp.com/pages/scholarship. The window for entries closes April 20, 2022.
Taylor Engle is a freelance writer, editor, and public relations/marketing specialist based in Brooklyn, New York. In her free time, she loves to cook, do yoga, and hang out with her cat.