My reasons for going into the cannabis industry are deeply personal. Growing up with a passion for nature and animals, I developed an awareness of traditional natural remedies as a way to protect and heal very early on. Seeing a close family member self-medicate with cannabis for a brain tumour ignited my interest in cannabidiol (CBD) specifically. A lifelong desire to research and promote the beneficial uses of the plant for both humans and animals was born.
The veterinary CBD sector: from the US to the UK
The US is 10 years ahead of the world in cannabis acceptance, both medicinal and recreational, and the market for pet CBD is well established there. While acceptance of human CBD products in Europe and the UK is on the same trajectory as that in the US, the veterinary CBD sector still has some hurdles to overcome.
Officially, I started out in the cannabis industry in 2017, although I have been seeking plant-based alternatives for my own, my pets’ and my family’s health since early 2000. But in 2017, I used my background in the veterinary industry to create a CBD brand for pets and people. I intended to enter the UK market in 2018, but in September of that year, the Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD) declared CBD to be a drug and stipulated that in the UK, it could only be prescribed by veterinarians.
While acceptance of human CBD products in Europe and the UK is on the same trajectory as that in the US, the veterinary CBD sector still has some hurdles to overcome
To quote: “We consider that veterinary products containing Cannabidiol (CBD) are veterinary medicines and should be regulated as such. We have made this decision on the basis that products containing CBD fulfil the following definition of a veterinary medicine in the Veterinary Medicines Regulations (VMR) by virtue of the effects they have: any substance or combination of substances that may be used in, or administered to, animals with a view either to restoring, correcting or modifying physiological functions by exerting a pharmacological, immunological or metabolic action, or to making a medical diagnosis” (VMD, 2018).
This put a halt to my expansion plan, so I remained trading in the US, keen to stay focused on understanding the market there, grassroots style. And yet, according to recent research by the Association for the Cannabinoid Industry (ACI), 3.24 million people, or 1 in 20 of the British population (6 percent), have given CBD products to their pets (dog, cat, horse, etc) in the last 12 months (Hodges et al., 2022). Yet there are currently no CBD products authorised in the UK for veterinary use.
Prescriptions and marketing authorisation requirement
CBD products for use in animals now require marketing authorisation before they can be sold or supplied in the UK. There is only one CBD-based product that has been granted marketing authorisation for veterinary use in the UK recently, and that is strictly prescription only. Companies supplying CBD products for human use in line with the requirements of the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency must not indicate or recommend their products for use on animals.
A veterinary surgeon may prescribe legally obtained human CBD products to animals under the provision of a prescribing cascade; however, administration of an unauthorised product containing CBD without a veterinary prescription is an offence under Regulation 8 of the VMR.
A veterinary surgeon may prescribe legally obtained human CBD products to animals under the provision of a prescribing cascade
All the chaos and grey zones of the industry that plague the US are being actively avoided in the UK, but this is also actively prohibiting the progression of cannabis use in the UK and EU for all species. So, where is the fine line, and what is actually happening?
Evolution takes time
The cannabis industry has progressed in every form, from industrial to medicinal, and then circled back to prohibited products before slowly making another comeback. This comeback has not been without incredible regulatory hurdles, confusion and, in my opinion, nonsensical red tape.
Animals accessed plant-based medicines through self-selection prior to humans domesticating and changing the once wild creatures to couch-surfing, cuddly and spoilt but ultimately loved domesticated dogs and cats. Naturally, human intervention has, of course, also affected what animals have access to – for nutrition and health. We as owners provide what we believe is best for our pets; this is typically based on what veterinarians, dog trainers, horse trainers and pet sitters advise.
The natural progression and overall awareness of legal cannabis options […] will influence what pet owners seek for their own pet’s health and well-being
As the evolution of cannabinoids gains momentum across the globe, the natural progression and overall awareness of legal cannabis options, from CBD to medicinal cannabis, will influence what pet owners seek for their own pet’s health and well-being.
Tested on animals yet not safe for animals?
There is emerging chatter and realisation surrounding the idea that we test the toxicity and safety of cannabis on animals, yet we are told not to give it to them because we are unsure of its safety. But I could cite hundreds of published articles, studies and journals that have concluded the positive efficacy of cannabis in the endocannabinoid system (ECS) of animals.
The receptiveness towards medicinal cannabis for animals now is vastly different compared to 2017/2018, when I was not even allowed to speak about it to clinicians in their practices. Now when speaking to veterinary professionals across the globe, I see a change of interest for cannabis in animal health. It’s beyond exciting to witness veterinary cases thriving from the use of cannabinoids in the prescribing cascade.
Education is key
Traditionally students are not taught about the ECS in animals or the pharmacology of cannabis in veterinary medicine programmes or academia, although they do touch on cannabis in toxicology. And veterinary programmes teach the endocrine system, but not the ECS. For me, this seems ludicrous as we have known about it since the 1980s. It’s time to update curriculums and teach our new graduates alternative medicine options for their future patients.
I have met many tenured veterinary clinicians using cannabis as a first option versus the former non-existent or last option for chronic and acute cases. Education is trickling into the industry. There are wonderful groups dedicated to peer-to-peer education platforms, sharing case reports, clinical research, real world evidence (RWE) and, mostly, how personalised this medicinal option is for pets and people.
Pushing for change
I have been developing relationships with organisations pushing for the global shift from fear to the use of cannabis in animal health. As these relationships developed, it has become evident that my observations are supported by many clinicians, practising animal health professionals and veterinary students.
People are already asking their veterinarians and animal care professional networks for these medicines. The challenge is to find quality products that can be trusted
The US cannabis supplement industry works together with these groups to ensure labelling is audited and free of health-related claims, keeping the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) at bay. I predict the same will follow in the UK and EU, providing the industry with regulatory guidelines with the intention of keeping products compliant and “clean” for the newly emerging market. This will take time, but everything “re” entering the market for novel use does.
I believe it is only a matter of time before the UK and EU pet industry will start to accept the safe use of cannabis in practice and over the counter. Pressure from the new human adopters of medicinal cannabis will be a large part of the evolution towards use for pets outside the US. People are already asking their veterinarians and animal care professional networks for these medicines. The challenge is to find quality products that can be trusted.
Veterinary professionals are starting to learn about cannabis. An understanding of the pharmacokinetics, the ECS and case-by-case administration clinical data is being shared to help with prescriptions and recommendations. The barriers are slowly crumbling, but it is up to the cannabis industry to enter with education-led campaigns and scientifically backed products for the sector to remain steady and supported. I look forward to watching this evolution and await the measures introduced to prevent rogue actors in this newly forming sector in the form of auditing and monitoring the industry stakeholders tasked with upholding quality and efficacy in products and offerings.
It is up to the cannabis industry to enter with education-led campaigns and scientifically backed products for the sector to remain steady and supported
In partnership with various educational and clinical strategic alliances, CBD companies are working hard on the promotion and research of the use of cannabinoids in animal health. We believe we will see regulatory change, country by country, in the next 12 to 18 months. So, the opportunity to provide regulatory authorities, scientific leaders and practising professionals with a guide for the safe medicinal use of cannabis is waiting in the wings. Change is coming.