Legal pot leads to more high, ill dogs

Ingestion can be fatal to canines in some cases

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LOS ANGELES — The minute I saw Monte, I knew something was terribly wrong.

My year-old Havanese normally jumps up when he hears any of us come home -- deliriously happy, his body shaking, tail wagging. But on this Saturday morning, he didn't even look up. He was lying on his favorite chair, near-comatose, eyes glazed over.

When my daughter picked Monte up, he began twitching as if he were having a seizure. When she put him down, he tried to walk, but dragged his hind legs. He couldn't sit up on his own.

I was terrified that he'd had a stroke and was paralyzed. Or was dying.

"We've got to get him to the emergency pet clinic right away," I told Elise.

We packed up Monte and brought along his little brother, Cristo, who seemed filled with anxiety. We figured Cristo had known something was wrong because when we first got home, he was waiting for us by himself in the living room. He led us right to Monte.

Twenty minutes later, we were at the San Gabriel Valley Emergency Pet Clinic in El Monte, Calif. The veterinarian, Leia Castaneda, was gentle and soft-spoken as she examined Monte and asked whether he could have gotten into the trash or open bottles of pills. The only time he perked up was when my husband arrived -- a good sign that he could still respond, Castaneda said. She took Monte to the back room for testing.

It wasn't long before the verdict was in: marijuana poisoning.

Elise and I looked at each other and burst into laughter. So did our friends when they heard the story about our doped-up doggy, stoned out of his mind.

"Just what are you growing in your backyard?" one teasingly asked.

"Lock up the Lays, he may still have the munchies," another friend Facebooked from Seattle.

The official diagnosis was "THC ingestion," which, it seems, has increased in pets along with the rising number of medical marijuana prescriptions.

Since California became the nation's first state to legalize medicinal pot in 1996, 19 others and the District of Columbia have followed suit. Four states are considering similar action.

Voters in Colorado and my home state of Washington legalized recreational use of marijuana last year. And late last month, the federal government announced it would back off from prosecuting most legal marijuana users in states that allow it, fueling expectations that even more states may allow pot.

A five-year study found that such poisoning of dogs quadrupled in Colorado after voters there legalized medical weed in 2000. The Oregonian in April reported cases in the Pacific Northwest were on the rise. And veterinarians here say they frequently see ingestion cases.

Bruce Castillo, an emergency veterinarian technician at an Eagle Rock, Calif., clinic, said he usually treats two or three stoner dogs a night.

"I see a lot of cases where dogs have been walking in the park and then become lethargic, shaky and disoriented," Castillo said. "Their owners bring them in and are freaked."

Castaneda said she started noticing an uptick in cases at her clinic about 2007. Nearly all have involved dogs -- cats are more discerning, she said -- that have picked up discarded joints, blunts or buds, gulped down marijuana brownies, even licked resin off pipes.

One man, who asked for anonymity to protect his family, said his dog ate an entire batch of his son's hash brownies. The normally healthy, playful pup began falling over one night. Her eyes were rolling, her breathing was labored and she began drooling uncontrollably, he said. After they rushed her to the emergency pet clinic, the dog's heart began to shut down. The vet gave her adrenaline and, after three days, she was good as new.

"I try to think of it as being funny, but my dog was dying," he said. "I have no issue with marijuana -- I think the laws against it are stupid and it should be regulated like alcohol and tobacco. But people are being less careful with it, and pets are suffering for it."

Most dogs recover, but some do not. Castillo said one Jack Russell terrier died after ingesting a huge amount of pot even after he vomited up "tons of it." The Colorado study reported two dogs that died after eating marijuana-laced butter, a particularly dangerous combination.

As for Monte, he recovered after spending the night in the hospital with an IV drip to flush the toxins from his system. The bill came to $730 for the exam, lab testing, radiographs, toxicology screen, catheter, fluids and hospitalization. Another man who brought his dog in the same day with a similar condition told the staff he couldn't afford such fees and walked out with his sick little Chihuahua.

Castillo said some dogs can recover on their own, but it depends on the severity of the poisoning.

Castaneda urged pet owners who use weed to stash it away. She also asked people to be candid about the possibility that their dog may have eaten marijuana. Some don’t want to admit it, she said, leading occasionally to tense conversations.

“We’re not the cops,” she said. “We’re here to help your pets.”