Medical cannabis for pets?
Since Australia legalised medical cannabis in 2016, a number of interested companies have approached the topic as a business opportunity. In 2018, two years after legalisation, the Office of Drug Control had to hire more staff for the specific purpose of handling a barrage of applications from companies seeking licenses to conduct business in the medical cannabis market.
If that doesn’t put things in perspective, consider the Australian medical market is currently valued at about $18 million. That figure is set to balloon into $1.2 billion by 2024, and $3 just four years after that, according to market intelligence firm Prohibition Partners.
Australia leads the Oceania region in the medical cannabis market. Source
But while most in the market are lured by the public’s increased acceptance of cannabis products for both human recreational and medical use, there’s another sector of the market that seems relatively untouched in Australia: The pet medical cannabis market. CannPal has zeroed in on this market here in Australia, and an interview with the CEO of the company, Layton Mills, puts things into perspective as for the CBD pet market.
However, the pet medical cannabis market seems a bit contradictory at first glance. After all, there has been news about some negative effects of cannabis on pets, thanks particularly to a phenomenon commonly referred to as pot-dog cases. Apparently, a number of pets have ended up in emergency veterinary rooms after accidentally consuming cannabis, with 1,800 of such cases in 2018 alone.
But in reality, it has mostly been agreed that cannabis has several medicinal properties that are beneficial to humans. Logic suggests these same benefits could apply to animals. In fact, most research into the effects of medicines on humans begin with animals, and so one can imagine the same benefits of cannabis apply to pets -- albeit in different doses.
In fact, this emerging market is no fluke. In the United States in 2017, sales of CBD pet products hit $7 in just four states. That’s almost half of what the current Australian medical cannabis market is.
Here, we ask CannPal’s Layton Mills a range of questions regarding CannPal, the idea of cannabis-related treatments for animals, as well as the company’s views on the current Australian cannabis policies in general, and more.
What do CannPal sell & what is your goal?
CannPal is an animal health company with a mission to provide pet owners and veterinarians with evidence-based, plant-derived therapeutic products to promote better health and well-being for animals. Our current focus is on the research and development of compounds derived from cannabis.
Our goal is to be the first animal health company to have a veterinary medicine approved by an animal health regulator to allow for legal sale through veterinarians. At present, it’s Illegal in every major market for a veterinarian to sell cannabinoid-derived products to pet owners.
Our purpose is to improve the accessibility of cannabinoid-derived therapeutic products for pet owners -- products that have been developed with robust manufacturing processes and tested to be safe and effective, which is a serious gap at the moment.
How much do CannPal treatments for pets cost?
CannPal is still in the research and development phase for its lead veterinary medicine products, and as such, is not currently selling treatments.
What proof is there of the efficacy of Cannabis for pets, when used in a medical context?
CannPal has completed studies in almost 60 dogs exploring various compounds in the cannabis plant, including THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (Cannabidiol). As part of those studies, the company has explored inflammatory biomarkers, gene expression on receptors associated with inflammation, and other markers associated with efficacy. CannPal has also just had two studies approved by independent ethics committees for commencement in the coming months.
One is a study consisting of 30 dogs with atopic dermatitis, and the other is a study consisting of 60 dogs with osteoarthritis. The Company hopes to share this research in the coming 12 months with one of those studies potentially leading to the approval of the first cannabinoid-derived animal therapeutic product for sale in Australia through veterinarians.
Regarding currently published signs of efficacy, a recent literature review attempted to address some of the current gaps in our knowledge as it relates to certain cannabinoid-derived products for pets. While there’s been no FDA (the United States’ Food and Drug Administration) approved research to date as a basis for the review, the researchers instead opted to evaluate anecdotal evidence and survey pet owners to see how they felt about the cannabinoid-derived products they were feeding their pets.
Many pet owners feel as though the potential benefits of CBD pet products outweigh the potential negatives. In addition, the statistics of the surveyed pet owners was very promising.
The study reported that nearly 93% of those sampled felt as though the CBD products that they were feeding their pets performed as well, or even better, than previous standard care medications and therapies to treat issues like arthritis, anxiety, cancer, and more. To be clear though, this is only anecdotal.
A more recent study looked at the efficacy of CBD products in treating osteoarthritic dogs in a controlled laboratory setting. The study revealed that CBD treatments were effective in significantly decreasing pain and increasing activity in dogs suffering from osteoarthritis. The Veterinary assessment showed that pet owners did not report any observable negative side effects.
What is CannPal’s view of Australian Policy concerning the legality of Cannabis, including recreational Cannabis for Australians?
From a medical standpoint, CannPals view reflects that of veterinarians and doctors. Cannabinoids clearly have medicinal properties, but the plant and its compounds are very complex and there needs to be available research that can empower veterinarians to treat patients with a better understanding of dosages, safety margins, and therapeutic windows.
CannPal has seen first-hand, through research, how these cannabinoids can influence each other in efficacy as well as pharmacokinetics. This tells us that the ratio of cannabinoids is important, depending on the desired outcome. Unfortunately, animals can’t provide the feedback that humans can (whether they’ve had too much, too little, or are responding well to more subjective conditions such as pain).
So our focus is on the safety of animals as well as providing a product that works for its intended claim with supporting evidence. This will allow veterinarians more agency when choosing products that are effective for the patients.
However we do feel that there are instances where the desired outcome might be more urgent such as palliative care and compassionate use, even for animals, where time isn’t a luxury. And in these instances, there should be clearer legislation that extends to animals, which allows veterinarians to trial cannabis-derived products on a case-by- case basis. Currently, animals do not fall into the human patient access schemes and there is no legislation that allows veterinarians to treat animals therapeutically with any product containing a “drug of abuse” (THC).
This is where there needs to be more work. Amending legislation to remove cannabis as a “drug of abuse” at an international level will allow flexibility for each country to better amend current controlled substance legislation, to allow pathways such as compassionate use for animal health, while also making it easier to complete the necessary clinical trials required to empower medical practitioners to treat more generalized conditions.
From a recreational standpoint, I think there are too many variables to have a firm standpoint. The key take-away for me is that there is enough research that’s been done to suggest that recreational cannabis has no worse of a safety profile and long term effects than alcohol, cigarettes, or certain prescription medicines.
However, as an example, it can’t be ignored that cannabinoids can interact with other medications, and/or have psychotropic effects which can influence certain individuals (just as alcohol and prescription medicines can). Both of these examples suggest the need for a more complete understanding of the compounds in the plant.
What are the challenges of seeking endorsement for the effectiveness of a Cannabis-based treatment for pets? How does that influence what CannPal are doing?
The challenge is in providing influencers (veterinarians) the research required to get the “buy-in” that cannabinoids can be a really effective part of a multi-modal approach to treatment plans for animals. While CannPal has been able to effectively navigate the process for commencing research in Australia, we are limited in areas such as patient recruitment, due to the population limits of animals in Australia. And federally approved research in the United States using cannabinoids is extremely difficult to run, so the research can sometimes be time consuming in countries like Australia.
Also clearing the misconception that Cannabinoids can treat every disease. Cannabinoids don’t need to entirely replace current treatments, but if veterinarians are able to reduce the use of NSAID’s, Opiates and Steroids in treatment plans and include adjunctive therapies with better side effect profiles (such as cannabinoids) through an integrative and synergistic approach, it should result in a better outcome for the pet owner, the patient, and the vet/owner relationship.
The result of these challenges have influenced CannPal to focus on only the highest quality production and robust research to ensure that veterinarians are well equipped with information for treating patients by the time CannPal has its products available for sale (unless legislative changes allow earlier access before then).
What are the challenges of performing tests on animals with Cannabis treatments, when so little is known about the effectiveness of Cannabis treatments on humans?
Actually, there is quite a lot of evidence on the effectiveness of cannabis treatments, but what is lacking is evidence of “how” and “why” they are working. With over 100 cannabinoids now isolated from the plant, various receptors and numerous other phyto-compounds such as flavonoids and terpenes, it’s difficult to develop “optimal” treatments. That is, what type of plant extract (isolated cannabinoids, or crude extracts) what ratios of cannabinoids, what type of cannabinoids, how much to take and when to take it.
CannPal is doing some very significant research in all the areas above and has the added advantage of seeing some of the research in humans, which allows us to “fill” some of the missing gaps when assessing research in dogs, and we feel we are able to significantly contribute to the scientific community’s understanding of these compounds in all mammals.
What lessons do you believe Australia can learn from countries and US States which have legalized?
Just like anything, good legislation is the result of “early adopters” trialing what does and doesn’t work and then adapting and being reactive. But the United States (US) may not be the best precedent to follow right now. The regulations are fragmented in each state, which is just causing more confusion and allowing this vacuum which is filled with unregulated and potentially dangerous products in the market place. This study is an example of what happens in an unregulated and confused marketplace.
But from Australia’s point of view, first and foremost the government should focus on improving the access for medical practitioners to provide evidence-based cannabinoids for palliative care and serious illness, such as refractory disease where current treatments don’t work.
Equal focus should be placed on very closely monitoring what is and isn’t working in various US states and Canada and adopting/drafting legislation accordingly.
How can people reading this article who support the legalization of Cannabis for adult recreational use make their feelings known?
There are often periods open for the public to comment on draft pieces of legislation, and these are the forums where consumers should make their feelings known. Be aware of what’s happening in your own country and keep yourself up to date on current policy. There is also no harm in directly contacting regulators, as the more pressure they face, the more inclined they are to take action. An example is CVS and Walgreens publicly stating they will be stocking CBD products, which is forcing the FDA and DEA (the US Drug Enforcement Agency) to review cannabidiol and hemp legislation more seriously.
CannPal's breakdown of CBD as pet treatment opens the already widespread applications of cannabis even more. With research-backed facts, CBD products become even more accepted by those in the medical community -- an important sector to the question of cannabis products as therapeutic substances.
Even beyond that, restrictions on the recreational use of cannabis products only hinder more studies on the drug. In the meantime, as Mr. Mills points out, the public will continue recreational use of the drug regardless, while researchers and scientists will be held back in that area, creating a landscape where true knowledge is lacking while the use increases. The same concept applies to pets as to humans -- research is necessary to gain full knowledge of the cannabis plants and its effects, and governments need to evolve with the times to make it easier to conduct such studies.