Using CBD to Help With Pain in Dogs

If you’re a dog parent to a furry friend who has a chronic pain condition, you know there is nothing worse than watching them suffer. And you’re not alone in wanting to do anything you can to help alleviate their pain. If you’ve browsed online or chatted with friends about treatment options, odds are that in addition to prescription drug options, you’ve come across at least one CBD oil or treat intended to treat pain in your dog.

Cannabidiol (CBD) products for pets have recently gained massively in popularity throughout North America, and products that claim to help treat a variety of illnesses and ailments have become readily available. The legalization of marajuana in some U.S. states and Canada has certainly helped peak interest in cannabis related products, but do these products actually work?

This article is aimed at giving you the most current and comprehensive information about using CBD for your dog’s pain condition. It will help answer questions you might have about what CBD is, how using it for pain treatment can help, and any potential side effects.

What is CBD?

Cannabidiol (CBD) is an organic chemical compound found in cannabis plants. It is one of over 100 ‘cannabinoids’ which is the larger class of unique compounds that researchers have isolated and studied in the cannabis plant. Of these cannabinoids, THC is likely the most well known – it is the compound responsible for delivering the “high” feeling.

However, CBD is unlike THC in that it is not psychoactive, meaning that it does NOT produce a high. Instead, CBD triggers some of the same metabolic reactions in the body as most anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen (the official class of these types of drugs is called non-steroidal,) anti-inflammatory drugs (or NSAIDs). These are typically used to help reduce fever and pain, control blood clotting, and decrease inflammation.

It’s important to note that CBD and THC are distinct, and there is no evidence to support any benefits of giving THC to our furry best friends, just the opposite in fact. Doing so might simply cause confusion and stress or anxiety.

Even though using CBD as a medicinal treatment for pets is relatively new, a variety of products are available to those seeking to help their pups in pain, or facing other conditions. CBD oil is perhaps the most common, using tinctures to deliver the product orally. CBD infused treats are also commonplace, as are creams that are meant to be rubbed on your dog’s skin or paws.

CBD and Pain in Dogs

Pain can be tricky to treat in any circumstance, because it is a subjective experience. We can’t see pain, or reach out and touch it. In dogs and other pets, pain can be even more difficult to treat because we don’t have a shared language. Unfortunately, we can’t just ask our dog if they are in pain.

How to Tell if My Dog is in Pain

What we can do as dog parents is look for signs and signals. When pain is acute, meaning it comes on quickly and sharply as a result of something happening, the signs are usually pretty clear. If you’ve ever seen a dog get it’s tail stepped on, they will usually yelp and jump up to move that tail quickly.

The Merck Veterinary Manual describes acute pain as “normal, predictable, noticeable response to an undesirable stimulus,” which can include injuries like bruises, sprains, and wounds and surgical incisions. Usually acute pain gets better quickly, within the first 3 days of an injury or event. However, some pain can last until the injury is fully healed, up to 3 months or more.

In chronic pain cases, however, where the pain is recurring or always present, it can be hard to know for sure if your dog is in pain. Chronic pain might be a leftover from an injury or disease that your pup healed from a while ago, or it may be the result of a ‘progressive/degenerative’ disease that gets worse over time.

In these cases, be on the lookout for noticeable, longer term shifts in behavior and any physiological changes.

Treating Pain in Dogs

Once we spot a sign that our pup might be in pain, what can we do about it? The best treatment will always be determined by the underlying cause or condition, on the advice of a veterinarian. Prescription treatment for pain specifically in dogs usually will consist of either non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or opiates, with the former being the most popular. Keep in mind that the NSAID’s prescribed by your vet will be made specifically for animals, you should never give your dog Tylenol or Advil from your medicine cabinet.

NSAIDs work by blocking two enzymes in the body that play a part in producing swelling and signaling to the brain that causes the pain sensation. They have grown in popularity because they do not contain steroids or narcotics, like morphine. If you’ve ever taken an aspirin or ibuprofen, you’ve used an NSAID yourself. In dogs, NSAID tablets require a prescription, and are marketed under names like Rimadyl and Metacam.

For stronger pain, your vet may prescribe opiates, but only on a short term basis. They work by blocking the brain’s ability to recognize their existing pain sensation. Because they are a narcotic, pets taking them require close monitoring, and prescribing them is more tightly regulated in the US and Canada.

Of course, both of these types of prescription drugs can mean side effects for your dog, which can also vary based on the specific drug they’re taking. For NSAIDs, common side effects include vomiting, diaherra, appetite loss, and other GI issues. This is because NSAIDs block the formation of prostaglandins (helping stop pain and inflammation), which also protect stomach and intestinal lining. You can see why probiotics are often recommended while your dog is on NSAIDs.

As for opiates, common side effects include mood changes, constipation, confusion, restlessness, or trouble breathing. And of course, prolonged use of either NSAIDs or opiates increases risk for developing negative side effects.

A New Pain Treatment Option

More recently, the growing popularity of CBD among humans and the legalization of cannabis in Canada and some US states has led to increased interest in using it to treat pain and other conditions in pets. Particularly if your furry friend has a pain condition and doesn’t respond well to prescription meds like NSAIDs or opiates, CBD might be very helpful for reducing pain. CBD can also be a helpful supplemental treatment to those already on prescription drugs (of course, be sure to discuss with your vet first)

While the scientific research on using CBD to treat pain in dogs is still new, we do have some evidence that CBD use can help dogs living with chronic pain. A recent study of dogs with osteo-arthitis found that CBD oil treatments helped improve their comfort and activity levels, compared to a placebo.

Specifically, for osteo-arthritic dogs taking CBD oil, owners noticed a marked change in their ability to move around in their daily life. Decreased pain was observed in activities like rising from lying down to standing, general life enjoyment. running, walking and climbing. These were measured by a questionnaire, administered to owners, known as the Canine Brief Pain Inventory. Increased activity levels, as measured by the 110 point Hudson Activity Scale, were also observed. The study also found that no adverse side effects were felt as a result of CBD treatment.

The researchers estimate that about a quarter of all dogs are diagnosed with some form of arthritis in old age, and other veterinary scientists have estimated that as many as 60% of all dogs will show signs of the disease. What’s more, current NSAID treatments can also sometimes cause unwanted side-effects in dogs like an upset stomach, leading to vomiting or diarrhea. As a result, there definitely seems like a place for CBD in the treatment options for chronic pain in dogs.

There is also good reason to be optimistic that CBD would benefit dogs with other inflammatory pain conditions, like intervertebral disc disease. Since the initial research suggests that CBD shares some important metabolic pathways with NSAIDs, it would be reasonable to think that CBD will help across all cases of pain and inflammation in the same way a NSAID does. Since inflammatory pain makes up such a huge class of diseases, CBD has the potential for a bright future as a pain treatment.

How Does CBD Work to Help Pain in Dogs?

Researchers have been studying cannabinoids and their potential health benefits since the 1970s, but most of this research has been directed toward human use. It has not been until recently that scientists have devoted more time and effort to understand how they affect animals.

Nevertheless, we know that cannabinoids like CBD interact with the endocannabinoid system (ECS), which is a body system that is found across all mammals, and even across almost the entire animal kingdom (save for insects and some microscopic organisms). This system is responsible for helping maintain homeostasis (our body’s inner balance) in a number of organ systems, including the nervous and immune system, as well as the reproductive and digestive processes.

The system itself consists of receptors and chemical signaling molecules that respond to both cannabinoid compounds made by our own body, and those that are introduced from outside. In dogs, many of these receptors are found in the brain, as well as cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, immune and reproductive system tissues.

For pain specifically, we know that the ECS modulates the conduction of pain signals to the brain, by potentially reducing the signal itself and the sensitivity of pain receptors. At the same time, activation of cannabinoid receptors helps reduce inflammation. This all happens within our own body, and is part of our body’s reaction to injury.

The precise details of mapping how CBD (and other external cannabinoids) affects the ECS of dogs and other animals is still an ongoing project. However, we know that using CBD is associated with less pain and inflammation in dogs, and we know that the canine ECS is in part responsible for modulating pain sensation and inflammatory response. This is why the initial research has focused on inflammatory pain diseases like osteo-arthritis and is showing to be so positive.

The stage is set for future research to determine the mechanism through which external cannabinoids like CBD affect the ECS in animals, now that we have good evidence that it can be a very helpful pain treatment.

Side Effects of CBD

Before starting on any course of treatment for your dog, you’d be right to ask about potential side effects. CBD is no exception. On the whole, research has found that CBD treatment is very safe in dogs.

All existing CBD studies report minimal and relatively harmless side effects in dogs, if any. Some studies have found that CBD increases a liver value called alkaline phosphatase (ALP), but it is unclear whether this has any health or medical relevance.

There also does not seem to be any negative interactions with other anti-inflammatory drugs in dogs, such as Rimadyl. It’s important to know you don’t have to choose between one or the other.

Nonetheless, because scientific study of CBD is relatively new, more work and more time is required to determine any adverse effects from consistent long term treatment. Always consult a veterinarian before undertaking any new treatment plan with your dog.