Health Canada approves clinical trials for cannabis-laced pet food to treat animal anxiety

VANCOUVER—One of Canada’s largest cannabis companies announced Wednesday it has received Health Canada approval for clinical trials of the effectiveness of cannabis-derived compound cannabidiol as a treatment for anxiety in animals.

Dana M. Vaughn, executive vice-president and chief scientific officer for Canopy Animal Health, said while CBD is becoming an increasingly common folk remedy for pets’ ailments, Canopy’s clinical trials represent the first time a company has sought federal regulatory approval for the practice of adding the substance to pet food.

A worker packages cannabis oil at Canopy Growth Corporation's Tweed facility in Smiths Falls, Ont. Canopy announced Thursday it has received approval from Health Canada for clinical trials to prove the effectiveness of cannabis-derived chemical cannabidiol in the treatment of animal anxiety.
A worker packages cannabis oil at Canopy Growth Corporation’s Tweed facility in Smiths Falls, Ont. Canopy announced Thursday it has received approval from Health Canada for clinical trials to prove the effectiveness of cannabis-derived chemical cannabidiol in the treatment of animal anxiety.  (Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press)

“There has been very little (research) done with CBD or other phytocannabinoids in pets up until now,” Vaughn said in an email. The addition of phytocannabinoids (naturally occurring, plant-derived cannabis compounds like CBD) to pet foods has so far been done “without regulatory approval, with the exception of hemp seed oil products that contain fatty acids. But not CBD to any extent.”

A spokesperson from Health Canada said in an email that the potential use of cannabis as veterinary medicine had been a consideration during the development of cannabis regulations, and confirmed that, to date, “no drugs containing cannabis have been authorized for veterinary use in Canada.”

Vaughn said Canopy’s hope is to provide a concrete body of evidence demonstrating how CBD affects different animal species and how it affects different sizes of animal within those species.

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Canopy’s announcement comes on the heels of preclinical dosing and safety studies of its “proprietary CBD-enriched oil formulation.” Vaughn said very few anti-anxiety remedies exist for pets and believes that CBD — a compound proven to “bind to specific serotonin receptors and … ion channels in nervous tissues that collectively lessen anxiety” — can help fill that market gap.

As with other cannabis-derived drugs such as tetrahydrocannabinol — the primary chemical responsible for the psychoactive “high” sought by some cannabis users — scientific research around CBD has been slow to emerge. This is primarily because researchers have long been hamstrung by federal regulations such as the requirement that a “Section 56” exemption be obtained to legally possess cannabis for research purposes. This is the same exemption required to possess cocaine, heroin and other Schedule 1 substances for scientific research.

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The Section 56 exemption requires that a research facility in possession of cannabis have a security apparatus that includes an intrusion-detection system and video cameras, paired with round-the-clock human observers to respond to potential breaches of security. And with a legal cannabis market only now emerging from a miasma of illegality, semilegality and scattershot municipal law enforcement policies, financial incentives to undertake the task of meeting such criteria have been scarce. Only since legalization was squarely on the horizon has there been a more widespread investment in scientific research exploring the therapeutic possibilities of cannabis and its derivatives.

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This also means the majority of evidence for the effectiveness of cannabis-derived chemicals has so far been largely anecdotal.

Although as Holly Newman, owner of Vancouver dog daycare Wagababa reports, anecdotal endorsements have made many a convert out of pet owners to whom she’s spoken.

“People are pretty open-minded and are willing to try it,” Newman said in an interview in May. “It’s becoming a pretty normal thing to find in a pet shop now.”

Newman uses a CBD ointment for her own aging hounds, whom she describes as “huge dogs,” to keep their joints fluid and free from arthritic pain.

And Newman said that many of the pet owners to whom she’s spoken view the approval of CBD by fellow animal lovers as proof enough to give the stuff a go when it comes to the health of their own four-legged companions.

Her one concern was the challenges many pet owners face in understanding how to safely determine dosages for different sizes of different animals.

But Vaughn said providing information on this very subject is one of Canopy’s goals, with the intention of providing its findings to pet owners and veterinarians once the study is complete.

Perrin Grauer is a Vancouver-based reporter covering Canada’s cannabis economy. Follow him on Twitter: @perringrauer


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